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

NMK Inc.
by Chris Dee

NMK Inc: Chapter 4: Mercy Mercy


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The alarm buzzed its discreet, St. Regis ‘so sorry to bother but it is 6:15’ buzz, and Mercy Graves pounded it with a resentful half-fist.  Then she stretched and fished out her “Keep Calm and Watch Rizzoli & Isles” sweatshirt to go out for a jog.

She didn’t like hotels.  Everywhere you turned there was a reminder of something they did for you or could do for you, which just emphasized how not at home you were.  Consider the slippers which the turndown service left on a little mat at the foot of her bed each night—slippers she chose to step on rather than wear.  She didn’t mind ‘travel’ if she could feel like she was living her life like always.  Room service breakfast or going down to the restaurant and paying $30 for juice and a roll was not living her life.  But getting up hours before Lex and going out for a run, waiting in line at Starbucks like a normal person and then coming back to the hotel as if she was coming in to work, that allowed her to feel she was living in London or Athens or Seattle or wherever Luthor’s business had brought her.  In Gotham she found it was easier to feel like a local than in most places.  For a Metropolis girl like her, everything fit her routine: the proximity of the park to the hotel, the coffee cart she found the first day—she’d even made a friend.

She reached the lobby and gave a condescending smile to the plainclothes rube the GPD had stationed there.

“Good morning, officer,” she purred as she passed, a soft smile curling her lip as she imagined the impotent glare pointed at her back.  Stepping on a low rent Gotham termite was a great way to start the day… until she passed the concierge desk, anyway.  That dampened her mood a little.  No one was there yet, but it was still an unpleasant reminder: Karen.

She took her usual route through the park to the Southeast entrance and the coffee cart where, that first day, a rather striking man stood looking up the path as if he was expecting her.  He was tall, about her age or perhaps a few years older.  It was hard to tell with the alarming streak of white in his otherwise reddish-brown hair, a streak that must be a fashion choice though Mercy couldn’t imagine why.  He had an intense gaze, but more than that, he had something else.  An aura or something that was almost familiar.

“Good morning,” he’d said with a pleasant smile that should have made her shiver, since it was the way Luthor smiled welcoming someone to his office when he was about to close a trap. 

“Good morning,” she’d said, stepping off the path and moving around him warily as she considered the cart and its sign advertising Espresso, Cappuccino and Café au Lait. 

“Allow me to present a Gotham institution,” the man said formally.  “This is Raoul’s Kafe Kart.  A very limited selection of very excellent coffee.  No muffins.  No flavoured syrups.  No substitutions.  Raoul himself has just run down to the news stand.  He will return shortly.”

Well, he was English, but the accent didn’t begin to explain the weird.  A sensible woman would have left, but although Mercy had always been a sensible woman, something prevented her.  The odd man introduced himself as Jason Blood, and that rang a distant bell.  She couldn’t quite place where she knew the name from, but she had a vague idea he had something to do with symbols and iconography, something like that, and might be the inspiration for the Harvard professor in those Dan Brown novels.  Then this Raoul came back and while Mercy and Jason waited for their espressos, they chatted a bit more.  Without really thinking about it, Mercy took her coffee into the park with him and they settled on a bench together, catching up like old friends.

“Good morning, Raoul,” she said, jogging in place.  “Usual double.  No Jason today?”

Raoul pointed down the path, and once she got her coffee, Mercy went in search.  Jason was seated on a bench with a small bag labeled Pola’s and the announcement that while she had done well in finding Raoul’s cart, she could not make any claim to living like a local until she developed a hopeless addiction to the neighborhood’s legendary bagels.

They ate.  Jason asked how the research was going, and Mercy reported her findings like a proud student doing extra credit for a favorite teacher:

“Polo is a team sport similar to ice hockey and soccer, but no goalie.  Played on horseback.  Team of four.  Run the ball down the field with those long-handle mallets.  Two big goalposts on the enemy side of the field, knock the ball through, score.”

“Very good,” Jason laughed.  “You see, I told you this wouldn’t be such a trial.”

She responded to the I-told-you-so with an eyeroll of mock disgust and a conciliatory reach for a second bagel.  She knew when Luthor told her to ‘find out all there is to know about polo’ he meant specifics on the upcoming charity event Bruce Wayne was playing in.  But like most people not born among those who play or watch, Mercy had only a vague picture in her mental dictionary next to the word, that picture having more to do with an embroidered silhouette on semi-casual shirts than the actual game.  It took all of three minutes googling the Ashwood Acres Invitational to realize she wouldn’t be able to make any sense of it without a better grasp of the basics. 

“A unit of play is seven minutes long,” she continued between bites.  “It’s called a chukker, which is also the name of the signature drink at Ashwood Acres where the upcoming match is going to be.  Three chuckers, then a fifteen minute halftime during which spectators can stomp the divots back into the field—word to the wise, choose your shoes accordingly—and then a second half of three more chukkers.  A player changes horses for each chukker, horse can play a maximum of two per game with a minimum one chukker rest in between.  Let’s see, what else?”

“Handicapping,” Jason prompted.

“Right.  How you can have gentlemen amateurs on the same team with professional players.  The handicapping goes from minus-two to plus-ten.  Five and above generally mean a professional.  Prince Harry, the Duke of Cambridge and Bruce Wayne all play to a plus-one handicap.”

“Well, it sounds like you have acquired that solid foundation you said you needed,” Jason said encouragingly.  “Now that you’re ready for the specifics, I will tell you that you’re in luck staying at the St. Regis.  The hotel has strong links to polo going all the way back to its founding.  Johnny Astor, like all members of Gotham society in 1904, went to watch the matches on Governors Island.  Dashing officers on both teams; it was the highlight of the summer season.  And both the players and spectators often stayed at the St. Regis.  Thus began the long association between the hotel and the sport.  I assure you, your concierge will be able to arrange anything Luthor wants.”

Mercy didn’t think to ask how he knew she was staying at the St. Regis or that she worked for Luthor.  Instead she said “You’re a historian, aren’t you?  The way you give a sense of being there.”

“Not exactly,” Jason said with a wince.  “Not in the academic sense.  I’ve simply amassed a lot of trivia about certain places at certain times, some of them quite a long time ago.”

“I see,” Mercy said.  “Well it’s been fun, but I better get back.  Take my medicine.  Face that beast of a concierge.”

“I’ll give you a little more trivia before you go,” Jason said, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, his fingers interlaced to form a triangle under his chin.  “But first, tell me how you’ve come to feel such animus for this concierge in so little time.”

Mercy felt a slight pressure in her chest, as if something was tightening to resist the incoming air, and when she breathed out, the words began tumbling with her next breath…

“Luthor sent me to get information on the Gotham museums,” she said, and it was such a relief to get it out.  “Upcoming events, the most exclusive ones, and then the dining options in and around the museum.  Balcony Bar that the hoi polloi don’t know about, Patrons Lounge where they can’t get in, that kind of thing.  He’s on a real art kick lately.  I don’t know what’s behind it.  At least, I hope I don’t.  Anyway, I wouldn’t bother with a hotel staff normally.  Most cities, the Luthor name opens every door, but they don’t like him here.  So I figured I’d go though the hotel.  And after I got the info, this little termite of a concierge—Karen—said ‘Nothing’s come in from Wayne Manor yet.  There’s a betting pool if you want in.’

“I hate that kind of thing.  Service people using their boss’s personal life as entertainment, or the even slimier ones trying to make a buck off it.  I can always spot them: little side business calling in tips to the tabloids, sometimes even sneaking pictures themselves.  Betting doesn’t seem as bad until you think about it, but really it combines the entertainment angle with the slimy attempt to make a buck.  But it’s not the worst.  The worst are the Karens out there who try to include me.  Me!  They see me walking behind Luthor or holding a door or carrying his bag and they assume I’m one of them.  You know how I got to where I am?  Loyalty.  Lex’s interests are my interests.  His priorities are my priorities.  It makes me sick when those dirty, bottom-feeding lowlifes can possibly think I’m one of them.”

“What did it mean?” Jason asked mildly.  “Nothing’s come in from Wayne Manor.”

Mercy felt her cheeks warm, reliving it as she explained… “Nothing’s come in from Wayne Manor yet.  There’s a betting pool if you want in.” And her answer “Sure, I got two bills.” …not because she wanted to bet on Luthor’s private affairs, but because she was curious to know what Karen and her colleagues thought those affairs were.  She wanted to see what the other bets were.  Since she had driven Selina Kyle back from the stock exchange with Luthor, since she had seen the way the conversation broke off when she entered the suite, since she heard the distinctive clip-clip of Selina’s heels walking towards the elevator—a sound that sync’d perfectly with the getting-the-hell-out-of-here walk that every woman knows.  It couldn’t be what it looked like. 

“But the next day, a package arrived from Wayne Manor,” she told Jason.  “For L. Luthor in the Presidential Suite.  The packaging was discreet, but there’s no fooling the front desk at the St. Regis.  It was recognized as jewelry.  The next day it was a gift box from Prada.  The next from Bauman.  The next from Sony.  So either someone at Wayne Manor is showering Lex with expensive gifts…”

“Or Lex is attempting to shower Wayne Manor,” Jason said with a tactless chuckle, “and the gifts are being returned.”

“Terry Hicer, License plate 18-659,” Alfred said, confirming the car and the driver Wayne Enterprises was sending to collect today’s return for Lex Luthor, care of the St. Regis.  He hung up the phone and pulled up Ms. Hicer’s WE ID photo on his laptop so he would recognize her.  Alfred had nothing against the bonded messengers Luthor used to deliver these unwelcome parcels, but he saw no reason to entrust Miss Selina’s side of the business (and more importantly Master Bruce’s) to the same firm—and therefore the same people, trucks, databases and paper trails.  He turned to collect today’s repackaged parcel, and saw the string had once again vanished.

He took the parcel to the foyer and left it on the mail table to be handy when Ms. Hicer arrived to collect it, and then he proceeded up the stairs to the Chinese room, so called because of the Wan-Li Ming dynasty vase in the hall outside the door and now better-known as Miss Selina’s suite.  He cleared his throat while the cat Whiskers assumed the most shamelessly innocent posture on a pillow.

“They say it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” he informed the cat sternly.  “The changes to our daily routine necessitated by Mr. Luthor would appear to bear that out.” 

He lifted the cat and pillow together like a laden tea tray, revealing the string underneath.  He moved them carefully, set them down on a different chair and retrieved the string. 

“Until tomorrow,” he told Whiskers, and left.

Mercy rarely took a lunch break.  There were long stretches where she wasn’t in Luthor’s presence, a dozen points throughout the afternoon when she was able to scarf down a protein bar or a smoothie while still being right outside his door and able to respond in seconds should he call.  Compared to taking a half hour to go out and being unavailable.  He might not be annoyed if he had to take another driver, but she would be out of the loop on where he went and what happened.  It was never good to be out of the loop.  Whether he actually asked something (“Mercy, that guy in London who said he could get all the East Europeans we wanted for 2.50 an hour, was that Euros, Pounds or Dollars?”) or just omitted details assuming she’d know what he was talking about (“Put a Dark Energy Reservoir on that thing from Ivo and find out what happened with Cardwell.”) it was never good to be out of the loop.  Even if, like today, the view inside the loop was pretty damn disturbing.

First there was Luthor’s patent joy at the news that the principle sponsors for the Ashwood Acres Polo Invitational would be the Wayne Foundation and some outfit called NMK Inc.  He was stroking a crystal dish on his desk so creepily that Mercy asked, with unprecedented impertinence, if they wanted to be alone.  Luckily he didn’t hear. 

He dismissed all the information she uncovered about Bruce Wayne’s handicap, the vet/trainer he employed, the dozen polo ponies in his stable and his habit of bringing four to a match and riding three.  Not that Mercy was expecting a medal of honor for uncovering that very difficult to obtain intelligence, but Luthor didn’t even seem to care.  She wasn’t seriously expecting an order to kidnap the trainer or sabotage a horse (although it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility) but she expected some reaction besides “Ok.”  He was honestly more interested in the trivia about the St. Regis history with polo that she’d picked up from Jason Blood.  And then he sent her to ‘get that suck up of a general manager and then bring the car.’ 

Then there was the art. 

“The concierge gave me a rundown on upcoming art events like you asked for,” she’d reported crisply, handing him a list.  “Unfortunately, we just missed the most significant development on the Gotham art scene.  The GMA’s collection of European Old Masters from the thirteenth through the early nineteenth century reopened after an extensive renovation and reinstallation.  That gala was the social happening of the season, the place to see and be seen.  All the upcoming stuff you see on the list is open to just about anybody.”

“The educational nonsense that’s only interesting to people who go to a museum for the art, eh, Mercy?”

His tone was mocking.  As if he himself was a great connoisseur and she was the troglodyte interested only in a party full of rich people.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Luthor.  I assumed you wanted me to locate elite events with a restricted guest list.”

“Ordinarily you’d be correct.  But you’ve overlooked an important detail about this reopening gala.  I’m not the only one who missed it.  Bruce Wayne was out of the country.  In Portofino with the enchanting Miss Kyle.  That means she won’t have seen the new galleries either.  Not with the lights on in any case.”

The enchanting Miss Kyle?  The enchanting Miss Kyle?!  There was a time it was ‘Kill her if necessary.’  Then ‘If we’ve not struck a deal by the end of our meeting you can kill her.’  Then it was ‘Deliver this note to the Catwoman at Vault, and have Davis drive the Hummer again.  She would certainly not appreciate seeing you behind the wheel.’  Then ‘The hotel, Mercy’ without a word of explanation why that woman was getting into the back seat with him.  And now it was the enchanting Miss Kyle?! 

“Get me on the list for this ‘Epicurious Tasting Tour.’  It looks like we’ll view five or six paintings that depict wine or beer, they’ll have some dreary expert stationed at each to bore us with the social history of the beverage or whatever.  Then we retire to this Balcony Bar where a special tasting menu is prepared to tie in to what we’ve seen.  Perfect.  Call the curator.  Tell him I want another favor.  Private tour of the gallery beforehand, all the trivia about the particular paintings they’ll feature so I’m more informed than their experts.  And then I want a word with the sommelier about this tasting menu…”

As soon as Alfred satisfied himself that Master Bruce’s fondness for Miss Selina posed no threat, he had welcomed the relationship.  He welcomed her as another charge, as a member of the family, and indeed he had done all he could to cement her position by appointing her mistress of the manor, in fact if not in name, even before she formally moved in.  It never for a moment occurred to him that he might one day find his loyalties divided.  The possibility never crossed his mind—but neither had the possibility of her sponsoring the International Orphans Fund.

It was understood that the IOF had an angel in Gotham.  Every year, whatever form their fundraising took, circumstances arranged to accommodate them as if by magic: calendars were cleared, reserves lifted, venues that had a strict 300-guest minimum absolutely no exceptions decided that, just this once, an exception might be made.  Percentages varied, but the Wayne Foundation generally paid some portion of the expenses and Bruce paid another personally, a combination that prompted discounts that were never offered by those in the business of servicing charity events.  Even at the height of the fop era, the message somehow got through that favors done for the IOF were noticed.  Doing right by the orphans could bring years of top dollar patronage from the most extravagant society hostesses and possibly a few corporate gigs.  The corollary was also true: gouge the orphans and you better enjoy the payday because it would be your last within a hundred miles of Gotham. 

This year, a new patron had materialized to cover a few of the expenses Wayne didn’t.  Selina was an orphan too, after all.  She had never been able to stomach giving to such causes with the Gotham Post portraying her past as that of some Dickensian gutterwaif.  She didn’t mind; there were plenty of good causes to support, from diseases to disaster relief.  All brought invitations to the A-List events where Catwoman “shopped” without validating that pathetic castoff of some hellhole orphanage fending for herself on the streets.  But now that she had corporate cover, she thought she’d give it a try, just this once.  So she’d made a call and written a check… At least, that’s how it seemed to her. 

Alfred knew better, having seen some variation of this phenomenon every year since Bruce returned to Gotham from his years of travel.  The IOF fundraiser took a different form every year, from garden parties to road rallies to Monte Carlo nights.  Some were infinitely more complicated than others, and whenever the planning hit a snag, Bruce walked around with a very particular frown while he considered the problem.  It might be minutes or a day until he had the solution, and once he did, his jaw set in a way that was seldom seen outside the Batcave.  His walk and stance changed, and he graveled at Alfred to place a few calls that he really could have made himself. 

It was clear once the dialogues began that Bruce was using Alfred to set a tone.  A decidedly non-foppish variant of the playboy’s patrician charm went to work, and it was clear from the half of the conversation Alfred could hear that Mrs. Auchincloss, Mrs. Winthrop or Mrs. Ludlow were putty in his hands.  Each was astonished Bruce remembered that delicacy or decoration from her little soiree all those years ago when he’d been so very drunk.  Of course she’d put him in touch with whatever chef, designer or specialist was responsible.  Often as not when Alfred made that call, he found the honored vendor had already been briefed.  Of course they would be so pleased to decorate the garden with songbirds and fairy lights, or whatever it was, like they had for the Broadmoor wedding or the Windermere gala.  Occasionally there were other surprises: Mrs. Ludlow was so thrilled that her long-ago party had made such an impression, she told Alonzo that not only must he make those scrumptious cherry blossom macarons with the gold leaf trim for the Wayne affair, he must send the bill to her!  The Hollington caterer wept when told his efforts were remembered after all this time and he confided to Alfred, chef-to-chef, that he was creating a special dish—a poached egg in pumpkin cream, garnished with seared foie gras and gunpowder tea leaves—to be included at cost!  The proprietor of Hot Air Balloon Tours, after a series of manly grunts, said he would donate the first two cases of champagne personally.

There had been many variations over the years.  Sometimes a special board meeting had to be called to obtain the use of the Robinson Park Aviary, the Botanical Gardens or the services of the Gotham Symphony, and an influential board member approached beforehand to ensure a favorable vote.  In each case, Bruce had walked around for a day with that particular frown.  Then came the set jaw, the determined walk that meant a solution was in sight, and the deep not-quite-Batman gravel telling him to place a call to whomever he decided that solution was.  This year the walk simply crossed the hall from Bruce’s study to Selina’s morning room.  He emerged a moment later, jaw still set, and the gravel asked only if Alfred knew where Selina was.  Alfred said he thought she was in the sun room or perhaps out in the garden, and Bruce walked off in that direction.  A few hours later Selina was sponsoring some aspect of the Polo Invitational and, like dozens before her, thought it was her own idea.

Just when Mercy thought the day couldn’t get any worse.  She’d driven Lex to the Gotham Museum of Art expecting to behave entirely like a chauffeur and wait with the car.  But no, he was in one of his moods when he wanted an obvious bodyguard.  It was only the sixth most secure building in the city, so it’s not like he needed her for safety reasons.  No, no, no, he wanted it to impress.  And it’s not like he’d care about impressing a curator who was already bought and paid for.  He must be wanting to impress Selina Kyle.  He wanted Mercy along for this dress rehearsal familiarizing herself with the space because he was planning on her being along for the event itself, this date or whatever it was he was planning.  It couldn’t be what it looked like, but whatever it was, she would have to look at more of it.

Then there was the sommelier.  If, in the gallery part of this Epicurious Tasting Tour, they were going to ‘Travel back in time to the moment champagne was invented during a conversation about The Picnic after the Hunt by Carle Vanloo,’ they simply must have a really superb Dom Pérignon after.  The selections provided at the museum’s Balcony Bar, where the tasting menu portion of the evening was to be held, would be adequate for Gothamites no doubt, but hardly for Lex Luthor.  Mercy was called upon to produce her list of superior restaurants in the area, and a conference call was arranged between the sommeliers of the two nearest, Lex, and the manager of the Balcony Bar.  After ten minutes of the most unbelievably solemn discussion—during which Mercy saw spots before her eyes and nearly lost consciousness—a 1996 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque was decided upon. 

Mercy drove Lex back to the hotel in silence—only to have the odious Karen signal her with an excited smile.  She had won the pool.  Today’s return from Wayne Manor was from the Caron boutique.  Mercy simply stared as Karen handed over an envelope with $275.  She’d only picked Caron because there was no way in hell—no way in a lead-lined kryptonite-reinforced hell—Lex would buy something as pedestrian as perfume.  Mercy looked at the fat wad of cash.  Looked at the entrance to the King Cole Bar and Salon, pushed past the thousand-dollar whores that could be found there at this time of day, and bought the first of three $24 cocktails that produced sticker shock even among those acclimated to pricey hotel bars.  She did nothing but stare at the famous Maxfield Parrish mural, her nostrils flaring dramatically with each furious breath. 

Old King Cole with a jester on each side, grinning at whatever imbecilities the one on the left was whispering in his ear—while an undoubtedly wiser and more put upon adviser farther down the scene drank.  Who could blame him?  There was no telling what that grinning idiot in the crown was going to do next.  No telling how long he’d been working for Mr. Merry Old Soul without once giving a thought to updating his resume.  Did people even do that anymore, update resumes?

“Hi,” a voice said—and Mercy blinked, flashing for a second on Clarence the Angel and all his followers in It’s a Wonderful Life parodies who pop up at the crucial moment when the hero is ready to fling himself off a bridge.  Her Clarence, it seemed, was the bartender bringing her a new bowl of… uh, wasabi peas (she guessed) to replace the beer nuts she was ignoring.  “Look, I’ll keep serving you the Grey Goose dry and dirty if you want,” he said mildly.  “But I don’t think you want to be here.  There’s a real bar down on Lexington a bunch of us go to.”

“When you can’t stand the guests anymore?” Mercy said with all the disdain she normally felt (but usually hid) when underlings like this tried to include her in their disloyal complaints about their bosses. 

“Hey, you looked like a lady having a bad day,” he said with a defensive ‘hands off’ gesture.  “My mistake for trying to help.”

He started to turn away and Mercy flashed on the enemy she’d made of Catwoman—on Lex’s behalf—flashed on Selina Kyle getting into the limo at the stock exchange—Selina Kyle in the suite when she came in to tell Lex the car was secure—the prospect of seeing her again at this museum thing—seeing her again period—who knew how often if Lex got what he wanted—and he usually did—“Wait!” she said, reaching out to grab the bartender’s arm and upsetting the bowl of beer nuts.  “Where is this place?”

“Lexington and 53rd, right behind the stairs to the subway.  It’s where you switch from the E to the F train to go out to Brooklyn, so the bar’s got the same name as the sign on the stairs.  EF Lex.”

Mercy stifled the first snort.  She blinked and stifled another.  Then a cackle escaped her and a few concerned patrons looked her way, fearing a Joker attack.  Finally Mercy’s head tilted back, her mouth dropped open and a glorious if somewhat frightening belly laugh ensued.

Lex Luthor’s appearance at the Stock Exchange was the only activity he thought important enough to inform the GPD’s Diplomatic Protection Group in advance.  When it was over his personal security force had clammed up about his movements as if they were guarding missile codes.  The official word was that Luthor appreciated how “egregiously understaffed” the Gotham police must be and he would not dream of adding to their burden unless he was making an appearance with national or global ramifications.  Since he had already been to the stock exchange and had no plans to visit lesser destinations like as the U.N. or a foreign embassy, they could content themselves with that one chap they had installed in the lobby of the St. Regis. 

Captain Ramirez fumed as he told Gordon how condescendingly this “chap” was mentioned, how clear the real message was beneath the polite pretense: Luthor considered the locals a lot of blundering yahoos who would only get in the way of his private security. 

“Typically Luthor,” Gordon sniffed.  “He’s all about ‘the best money can buy.’  Can’t stand the idea that maybe the best isn’t for sale.”

“It would mean a lot to the men if you said that publicly, sir.”

Gordon shook his head.  He understood that Ramirez wanted him to do something, to defend his men and answer the insult.  He also understood that to do so wouldn’t gain him anything.

“Swinging at a pitch in the dirt,” he said, rising from his desk to walk the man out.  “Just get through the next few weeks, Captain, and once the bleeding ulcer is gone, I am working on something to let Gotham’s Finest know they’re just that.  On my terms and on my timetable, not responding to a posturing ass like Luthor.”

Glancing through the glass wall behind Ramirez, he told the captain he’d walk him out and made a show of greeting his next appointment as he passed through the outer office.

“Richard!  Go right in and I’ll join you in a minute.  Bonnie, get my son-in-law settled in and give him some coffee or whatever,” he said, eliminating the need for his secretary to announce him and making it clear he wasn’t hiding the relationship.

He walked Ramirez as far as the elevator, figuring it gave everyone enough time, and when he returned, Dick was indeed ‘settled in’ with coffee, as well as a laptop with two docked tablets hooked up to a mobile phone.

“Another round of updates I take it?  This isn’t going to be a daily thing, is it?”

Dick grinned a boyish Robin-in-short-pants grin.

“Commissioner, the one piece of ‘unofficial’ training I have from B that has served me best when it comes to your daughter and anything connected to a computer: Don’t ask.  Don’t question, don’t think, don’t speak.  Just do.” 

Gordon laughed and Dick reassured him that this should be the last.  Any additional patches and things could be ‘pushed down’ as the need arose.  Gordon said that sounded rude and Dick assured him that he made it sound a lot better than Barbara did.  While the upgrades installed, Gordon asked Dick to sit down.

Claire Sabana loved horses.  Since she was a little girl, she loved being around them.  It’s why she became a trainer and veterinarian specializing in polo ponies.  It’s why, despite his deplorable reputation, she took the job working for Bruce Wayne.  The Pennyworth character who conducted that first interview said she probably wouldn’t see him more than once or twice a year, if that.  A prediction that was quickly confirmed when he cancelled the final interview where he was meant to meet her personally.  He showed up at the stables a few weeks later and introduced himself, got her name wrong and, with a hiccup that smelled like Johnny Walker, asked if she wanted to accompany him to the polo pony auction in South Carolina.  He talked about what he liked in a mare—big bodied, solid, a lot of breadth between the legs—which was certainly a legitimate preference, one shared by the 9-goal handicaps she’d worked with.  But the way he said it, coupled with the scotch on his breath… She politely declined the auction, firmly corrected the name—it was Claire, not Clara and she preferred Doctor Sabana—and that was the last she saw of him outside of the tabloids for six months.

It was basically a dream job.  A stable of twelve to fourteen beautiful, high performance ponies to train and care for.  Her employer occasionally came out, rode and practiced for a few weeks, played a match, and then vanished back into his existence as a glossy photo in the tabloids.  Occasionally he bought a new horse, and always he rubberstamped any recommendation she made if a horse should be retired.  And it had to be said, after that first visit, the meetings were never as bad as she expected.  He had a horseman’s understanding of the training—what behaviors came naturally to a herd animal and what didn’t.  He had a doctor’s understanding of the stresses put on a pony’s bones and tendons, ligaments and joints.  At first Sabana had been shocked, then she remembered his father had been a medical man and wondered if maybe the poor little rich boy wasn’t a complete creep.  The next time he came to practice, she told him about her preventative approach and the acupuncture she used as a compliment to traditional medicine.  How it established rapport with the horse, etc.  Once again, he disappeared into the tabloids and she didn’t see him again for nearly a year, but this time in the interim she was contacted by Horse & Hound, Polo +10 and the American Veterinary Quarterly.  All wanted interviews.  She gave two, after which Wayne’s man Pennyworth got in touch and said that with her new higher profile, an increase in salary was called for.  Mr. Wayne didn’t want to risk some Argentine syndicate stealing her away.  It could have been a coincidence, but Sabana didn’t think so. 

In recent years his tabloid appearances were fewer and less sensational.  Sabana hadn’t noticed that she hadn’t been seeing the usual parade of scandals tied to her employer’s name until the call came from Pennyworth that Mr. Wayne would be playing at the Ashwood Invitational and she should select five ponies that were ready for play.  He would be by in a few days to ride them and choose which three to use for the match. 

The laptop on Gordon’s desk continued to flash a tiny light that he knew meant feverish activity of some kind was going on inside, though he had no idea what.  He turned his attention to the aspect of the operation he did understand:

“I was glad you called me ‘Commissioner,’” he said.  “Makes me think I’m onto something with this little idea of mine.  Way you were brought up, I imagine.  A place for everything and everything in its place.”

“I suppose, yes,” Dick said with an uncertain smile.  “What are you getting at, sir?”

“When you proposed to Barbara, you were an officer in the Bludhaven PD.  Now, the respect I have for Batman goes without saying.  I know you know that and you’re not one to imagine a lot of foolishness.  It also has to be said that Bludhaven isn’t Gotham.  But even so, Dick, you understand the inner workings of law enforcement—the day to day, the paperwork, the traffic stops gone bad—in a way that other people don’t.  You’ve had some taste of the hundred-thousand parts of the job that have nothing to do with that signal on the roof.”

“Commissioner, what are you getting at?”

“That you have a totally unique perspective.  Your connection to Bruce brings a certain expertise—the technologies available through WayneTech, for instance.  Among other things.”

“Y-yes, I can see that,” Dick said cautiously.

“So what would you think of putting that expertise to work for me, coming to work with the department as a civilian consultant,” he added hastily. 

“Consulting on what?”

“What you’ve done for me with these gizmos, for instance.” 

Dick’s mouth dropped open, but before he could speak, Gordon continued:

“On a citywide basis.  Now, it’s not feasible to equip 40,000 officers with a set of Wayne Tech prototypes, obviously.  But even without that aspect, what you’ve done for me, basically, is matching up what I do on the job with the technologies that are available.  Those technologies, the things Wayne makes, it’s all a function of how… certain parties think, on the design end, I mean.  Call it Wayne R&D.  And as I said, you have a different perspective, the perspective of a cop on the beat as well as… other jobs you may have had.  You might think of better ways to apply the tech that’s available for what we do.”

“Uhm, I guess,” Dick said.

“Good.  If we’re agreed in principle, you can draw up a budget for a pilot program covering two precincts and I’ll scare up the money.”

EF Lex wasn’t Mercy’s kind of place— But then, she didn’t really have a kind of place.  Unless you counted the juice bar at the gym.  Before that, it was a soda machine outside the fitness center at LexCorp.  She’d never been one to go out with people to unwind at the end of the day.  She went home.  She’d heat up a Lean Cuisine and study up on wherever Lex was going to be the next day.  If there was no work, she’d have a bath and read a James Patterson. 

She wasn’t always this numb routine masquerading as a person.  She used to be alive.  Before LexCorp, before Lex.  She felt, she hoped, she hurt—the first Tuesday of every month, she put on a frizz-tastic wig, fishnets and a white apron and lip sync’d Magenta at the midnight Rocky Horror screening at the Bakerline.  She lifted her hand high above her head and pointed down dramatically at her empty glass.  When the bartender—this one was Trish—came over to fill, Mercy asked if there was a place in Gotham that showed Rocky Horror regularly, and Trish said there was a spot in the Village, every Friday and Saturday. 

“I’ll be out of work by then,” Mercy grin-grumbled.  Then she squinted.  “You didn’t have to ask anyone, look it up, check an app.  You just knew.”

“Down-down-down,” Trish said, rhythmically tapping the top of Mercy’s glass.

“Should’ve guessed.  You’ve got that Columbia thing going,” Mercy said, pointing to her own eye to indicate the girl’s make-up.

“Look, it’s not used much because it’s pricey,” Trish said.  “But that’s a digital jukebox in the corner.  It can download just about anything.  And this bar has seen dancing before.”  She patted the bartop next to Mercy’s drink, indicating she meant literally dancing on the bar.

“We have no Janet,” Mercy pointed out.  “Doesn’t really work without her.”

“Point,” Trish said.  “So screw Rocky.”  She paused for a beat, mouthed a coy kiss and said “I wanna put on my, my, my, my, my boogie shoes.”

Alfred couldn’t bring himself to tell Selina explicitly about Bruce’s history charming favors for the Orphans Fund.  It would betray the trust Master Bruce had always placed in him, secrets a good deal more sensitive than those of an ordinary employer.  But he couldn’t bring himself to leave Selina completely in the dark about information he had that concerned her.  He decided the best course was to give her a chance to figure it out.  She was a clever woman, nearly as observant as Master Bruce, determined and stubborn when she wanted something.  If he permitted her to glean that there was something she didn’t know, she would make it her business to find out, to pry clues out of him by which she might guess.  Possibly to confront Master Bruce or to employ some other means he couldn’t imagine, but in any case, she would have a chance to find out without his overtly taking sides.  He found her in the morning room, brought tea and informed her quite casually that Master Bruce had gone to the stables to practice for the upcoming match.

“Yes, I know,” she grinned, setting her work aside and accepting the tea.  She inhaled deeply over the cup, savoring the aroma with her eyes closed like it was a favorite treat.  Then she continued.  “He’s pretty intense about it.  Said he’ll go out to ride every day before the match and that replaces his cave workout.  I didn’t think anything less than DefCon-4 did that.”

“Master Bruce has always been quite fond of the game, miss.  It is the one athletic endeavor where he feels he can compete like anyone else without fear of compromising his identity.”

“You mean because polo is a rich man’s game, Bruce Wayne can be good at it without raising flags?”

“Yes, miss.  You’re aware of the master’s competitive nature.  One gathers that, playing most sports, he finds it frustrating to reconcile the passions of the game with the concern that Bruce Wayne not appear excessively athletic.”

“Yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” Selina laughed.  “Here’s another:  Alfred, should you ever find yourself in the unenviable position of having to choose between taking a punch from Batman or playing tennis with Bruce knowing he is Batman—and I’m speaking as possibly the only person who’s done both—take the punch.”

Alfred restrained his smile out of loyalty—which reminded him that this chat had an objective he had yet to achieve.  He was about to try again, but before he could steer the conversation back to the desired topic, Selina did it for him.

“I’m afraid there’s another reason he might be practicing extra hard for this particular match.  With him on the field playing, I’m basically going stag.  There’s no way Lex will pass that up, the chance to come after me when I’m alone and in public.  Big social affair where I can’t easily get away, position himself as my escort.”

Alfred’s face betrayed only the subtlest signs of distress, as when a hollandaise curdled. 

“Most unpleasant for you, miss.”

“Not at all, it’ll be fun,” she said happily.  “I thought about asking him actually, to be my date.  Martial arts move.  You basically step into an attack to change the point of impact from what your attacker’s expecting.  It can throw them off their game, but I doubt it in Lex’s case.  He’s not the type.  Much better to let him catch me unawares and maneuver into position as my escort before I can stop him.  That’s also a martial arts move, works very well with his type, using their momentum against them.  As soon as the Lexes of this world think they’re winning—Oh God, they put everything they’ve got into it, it’s hilarious.  You don’t have to do a thing, just slip to the side and watch them charge into the wall at full speed.”

“An amusing mental picture, miss.  But returning briefly to the subject of Master Bruce practicing for this particular match with increased vigor, there is one other consideration that is perhaps worth mentioning.  The beneficiary of the event, the Orphans Fund is one that, I’m sure you realize, is quite significant to him.”

“I know it,” she said with a blissful grin.  “Turns out, he’s been quite a bad boy on their behalf over the years.  Practically a thief, he said.”

“He did, miss?” Alfred asked warily.

“Mhm.  Confessed everything.  The Auchinclosses, the Winthrops, the Mellon-Scaifes, the Broadmoors.  He worked it out, and what he’s personally acquired for the Orphans Fund that those people never planned to give before he turned that lovely scheming Bat-brain on them comes out to 17.5 acres of Catitat, food and veterinary care for forty rescued lynxes and—because he correctly deduced that I liked to treat myself after a heist and didn’t put every single penny into the Catitat—two weeks in St. Kitts.”

She giggled, and Alfred felt both relieved and outmaneuvered. 

Girl, to be with you is my favorite thing,

Mercy entered the EF Lex toilet, dropped her purse next to the sink and ran her fingers through her hair.

           Yeah.

She put on lipstick, unbuttoned her shirt and checked her reflection. 

I can't wait 'til I see you again. 

Unsatisfied, she took off her jacket and vest…

Yeah, yeah. 
Uh huh, uh huh. 

Removed her shirt and bra completely,  and then put on the vest alone giving the effect of a sleeveless, plunging top. 

I wanna put on
My, my, my, my, my boogie shoes

She emerged from the washroom, tossed her purse to Trish and danced her way into the center of the floor.

Just to boogie with you.

Grinding her way to steal a dance partner here…

Yeah.

Leading a line of patrons at the bar there…

I wanna put on
My, my, my, my, my boogie shoes

Salt-Shot-Suck in time with the music…

I want do it 'til the sun comes up.  Oh yeah.

Eventually dancing on the bar.

I want to do it 'til I can't get enough.

To raucous cheers.

Yeah, yeah.  Uh huh.

Collecting four phone numbers, including Trish’s.

I wanna put on
My, my, my, my, my Boogie shoes.

And a marriage proposal.  

Just to boogie with you.

From Karen.

“Hello?  Meow-meow?” sounded in the darkness that linked the Satelite Cave with the underground maintenance passage between the 48th and 46th Street subway platforms.

“Over here,” Batman called out, realizing she’d never come in that way before and disabling the hologram momentarily for her to see the doorway.

“Ah, there you are,” Catwoman said, peeking in uncertainly before stepping through.  She looked around to get her bearings in the cave and then joined him at the workstation.  And then… “You summoned me, like a spaniel.”

“I used the OraCom to ask what part of town you were in,” he corrected.

“And even though it’s not date night, you then asked me to—ooh, shiny,” she concluded as if there was no interruption, and then looked admiringly at the viewscreen where windows of coded data cycled through a decryption routine.  One window in particular, filled with black text turning green line by line, suddenly flashed and a second window with a 10-digit sequence superimposed on top of it.  “Where did you get this?” she cooed.

“A microchip, hidden in a plastic lozenge, taken from a perp,” Batman graveled.  “What can you tell me?”

“Two digits, hyphen, then four, one, three.  We’re looking at a keycode for one of the Guardian T-800 series.”

“These too?” he asked, pointing to a side screen of similar codes.  The new sequence appeared on the bottom of the list, and Catwoman bit her lip. 

“Yeah, all Guardian T-840 codes,” she said thoughtfully. 

“Different access doors on the same system, or different buildings?” Batman asked.

“Same building.  These top ones where the second block of numbers begins with an eight, that’s for a keypad.  The rest are all keycards.” 

“So these lower codes wouldn’t be manually entered, they’d be coded onto a magnetic strip to fake an employee badge.  Make it look like an inside job.”

“Right.  Only thing is, you use one of these exact codes, you’re cloning a specific employee’s badge.  Basically framing them for the theft and potentially tripping any lockouts if you’ve got someone from the science division going into a lab, HR and accounting all in a few minutes.  It’s better to generate a new code, but you need the master key for that.”

“That was my guess.  And that’s why the decryptions are still running.  I assume with enough access codes he’d be able to reverse engineer the master.”

While they waited, Selina mentioned her conversation with Alfred that afternoon.  They’d already discussed Luthor’s inevitable appearance at the Orphans fundraiser, but the name still produced an angry huff and the scowl usually seen before empty display cases and open vaults.

“I hadn’t really thought about how I was using martial arts moves until I heard myself explaining it to Alfred,” Selina was saying.  “It made me realize there is one defense I hadn’t considered.  The simplest: a block.  I could ask someone else to be my escort so there’s no empty space for Lex to move into.”

Bruce considered it and suggested Dick, but Selina vetoed it. 

“It’d be too weird asking him and not Barbara.  I was thinking Matt Hagen, since he hates Luthor, or maybe Gordon, since Luthor hates him.”

“Gordon would make a better choice,” Bruce said firmly.

“You just don’t like that I have a super-powered buddy of my own and don’t need to rely on… oh, yours, that’s an idea.”

“You don’t want to ask Dick without Barbara but you’re okay asking Clark without Lois?”

“Not Clark.  Superman,” Selina purred. “Not like he’s averse to attending charity events.  International Orphans Fund, it doesn’t get much worthier than that.”

“I agree, but… identity issues.” Bruce graveled.

“No issue.  I’ve got a Luthor problem.  He’s Superman.  It’s his function.”

There was an angrier puff and a deeper scowl associated with Joker sightings.

“How do you figure being able to ask Superman on a date isn’t an identity issue?” he asked with a growl.

I have a Luthor problem,” she repeated, slowly and distinctly as if dealing with a non-native English-speaker who might also be hard of hearing.  “Selina Kyle has a Luthor problem.  It might not have made Page 6 yet, but it’s not nuclear launch codes secret either.  Every day I get a new gift.  Every day I send it back.  I can tell you from mumble years as a cat burglar in this town, the staff of the St. Regis are not that discreet.  They’re making book right now on what tomorrow’s returned item is going to be.”

“What was today’s gift, by the way?”

“A tetsubo,” Selina sighed.  “Japanese war club…”

“Like a 10-pound baseball bat covered in steel rivets,” Batman nodded.  “I have two in the trophy room from—”

“You don’t have one like this.  An ordinary tetsubo, they’re steel rivets, but—”

“But this is from Luthor,” he said wearily.  “So they’re what?  Platinum?  Rhodium?  Osmium?”

“Iridium.”

“Okay fine, you have a ‘Luthor problem,’” Bruce conceded.  “That doesn’t mean you can pick up the phone and call Superman.”

Selina held up her thumb and pinkie with an abrupt wrist flick that first seemed like she was flipping Bruce off, but was really making an ‘air phone.’

“Hello, Jim?  Selina,” she said into her imaginary receiver.  “How you settling into the new job that I helped you get—That’s great.  Look, I need a favor in return.  Could you scoot up to the roof and light the signal, and when Tall, Dark and Broody answers, tell him to come out to the manor and see me.  We need to talk pronto.”

Beneath the mask, Bruce half-rolled his eyes at the theatrical way she was making her point while she stepped forward and began tracing the lower scallop of the chest emblem with a claw tip. 

“Hey, Handsome.  Been a while,” she said in a voice that cut seductive promise with a dangerous edge.  “Unless you count the night you wrecked my dinner party to ask a lot of questions about a string of burglaries I had nothing to do with.  Seems you owe me.  Now don’t get all huffy.  What I want is very simple and not even a little bit illegal.  Just get a message to Superman that I need to talk to him.”

Bruce grunted.

“I guess that’s plausible,” he admitted.  “Do you really want me to call him or are you just arguing with me because it’s fun?”

“I have to think about it.  I was planning to go stag and just handle Lex my own way, but you’ve got to admit, it would send a hell of a message.  Lex isn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.  Showing up with Superman as my date is a language he can understand.”

The “walk of shame” usually denotes an early morning walk home in the same clothes you set out in the night before, disheveled hair and hangover optional.  It implies a casual hookup, not a half night of drinking, dancing and flirting.  Yet as Mercy left EF Lex and made her way back to the St. Regis, “shame” was most definitely what she felt.  At 2 AM, it wasn’t the harsh judgment of the sun that prompted it.  It was that second moon unique to Gotham that accused her, the one with a bat silhouette that wouldn’t mean shame or disloyalty to anyone else, but to an employee of Lex Luthor—to one who was here in Gotham working as Lex’s protector, Girl Friday and right hand, it was a sickening reminder.  Of all the places to let herself go.

She walked back to the sounds of late night traffic, distant sirens, some homeless lunatic raving about alien abduction, and a limo passing with a drag queen standing inside through an open sunroof and serenading pedestrians with a chorus of It’s Raining Men.  It could have been Metropolis if not for the signal.  In her neighborhood the drag queen would be singing Put a Ring On It and the homeless guy ranting how The Shining is really about America abandoning the gold standard, but all things considered, it could have been Metropolis.  In the hotel lobby, the GPD officer stopped her at the door and asked to see her room key.  The night man was more obviously out of place than his morning counterpart, but rather than take a shot, Mercy took out her keycard and showed him listlessly.  In the elevator, she stared directly at the camera the entire ride, a glare of dull malevolence, until she reached her floor. 

The St. Regis is known for having a 24-hour butler on every floor, but Mercy had not seen hers since the introduction at check in.  She was familiar with (and had done background checks on) the five who would be on duty on Lex’s floor for the length of his stay, but she hadn’t even considered that her own room had the same amenities.  Yet here was a tall, thin young man, bald and rather attractive if you liked that kind of thing (and looking quite splendid in his white gloves, white tie and tails at 3 o’clock in the morning) rising to greet her.

“Good morning,” she said, not knowing what possessed her or what prompted the talk show host cheer in her voice.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said mildly.

“Bat-signal is lit.  You wouldn’t know what it’s about?”

“I couldn’t say, ma’am, but I’ll be happy to make inquiries and get back to you.”

She told him not to bother, ascertained that his name was Rory and went back to her room—not realizing that St. Regis butlers make a note of everything.  If Tom carries your bag when you return from shopping and sees that it’s from Ladurée, he’ll make a note in your preference file that you like macarons.  If you ask Rory about the Bat-signal, he will not only see that a Gotham Post is delivered to your door every morning with any stories about Batman highlighted for your convenience, but your interest in Gotham’s Dark Knight will be added to your file for his round-the-clock colleagues to consider in contriving those little touches to make your stay special.

Since Mercy had little contact with the butlers on her own behalf, the note Rory was making about Batman was the first in her file.  There was no music preference, for example, so the turndown service had set the radio to a classical station by default.  She opened her door to Beethoven.  The lights were dimmed, the curtains drawn.  On the nightstand, two complimentary bottles of water sat with a recently refreshed ice bucket and a weather card informing her of tomorrow’s forecast so she could plan ahead.

She sighed at the thought: planning ahead.  It was nearly three.  She picked up her alarm and set it back fifteen minutes to 6:00, knowing most people would go the other way.  The lazy and undisciplined would set their alarm later in order to sleep in.  Mercy would set it earlier, giving herself time to hit the snooze button a few times to have the illusion of sleeping in without losing any actual time.  So there.

She flopped onto the bed and pushed aside the tray left every night with a breakfast room service menu, laundry form and shoeshine kit.  She stretched out her arms like she was making snow angels, her body aching with weariness and noticing for the first time what a very comfortable bed it was… Boogie Shoes cycled in her head like an ear worm.

From her position, she looked at the closed curtains as if she could see through them, and wondered if the Bat-signal was still lit.  Her mouth felt dry and she opened one of the waters, took a few sips and decided it needed help.  She tried the mini bar… Jack Daniels, Macallan, Bombay Sapphire, Absolut, Chivas Regal… she opted for the last, though her inner Lex told her diluting good scotch with that much water and ice was a greater crime than the Secret Society ever committed.

She continued to rummage… gummy bears, cashews, potato chips, sourdough pretzels, chocolate chip cookies… Chivas and cookies, that sounded good.  While she was up, she peeked through the curtain.  The Bat-signal still shone accusingly and she sat in the window seat behind the curtain looking at it, drank and munched.

So… she’d won a packet betting on Lex’s personal business, went out and had a spree with the proceeds, drinking and dancing all night, and now she’d be giving second-rate service tomorrow because she’d be running on only a few hours sleep, Chivas and cookies.  Badly done, Mercy, badly done.

She’d just have to find some way to make it up to him.

To be continued…


 

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