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

NMK Inc.
by Chris Dee

NMK Inc: Chapter 5: Line of the Ball Line of the Ball


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What distinguished Luthor from lesser men was the ability to evaluate information.  There was Useful Intelligence, Gainful Intelligence, and chaff.  The last was merely information he had that others didn’t.  It had no value, yet many who considered themselves schemers never seemed to realize that.  They thought any secret they unearthed must bring some advantage, and they wasted time and energy trying to milk the stone. 

Gainful Intelligence was that which could be used to make money: Quidoch Chemicals about to get a government contract—Buy shares before the information goes public.  Lex had nothing against such opportunities, but they were somewhat… small.  The information had nothing to offer besides profit.  He didn’t mind using the intel, but he didn’t think it was anything to strut about.  He didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment having oil pumped from a well, nor did he profiting from a stock tip.  He just bought at .240, sold at .295 and pocketed a nice profit.  It was nothing to beat his chest over. 

Useful Intelligence was his favorite.  It could be profitable but it wasn’t always, not in terms of money.  When it did make money, it didn’t stop there: If the power players were betting a certain endeavor would fail, they would make sure one way or another that it did and a short sell coupled with a credit default swap would bring a substantial sum.  But unlike its gainful counterpart, Useful Intelligence had more to offer.  A wrecked company meant someone was about to discover a knife in their back—a Judas among their colleagues, the betrayal of a trusted ally—and that was an opportunity indeed.  That was the essence of Useful Intelligence: the mapping of opportunities related to people.  It might have nothing at all to do with money, such as his prized information of the moment that on the morning of the polo match, Bruce Wayne would be leaving the manor early to have breakfast with the team.  Mercy would be waiting on a conveniently well-camouflaged spot outside the gate, and as soon as she saw Wayne’s car pass, the serial exploit of aligned opportunities would begin…

It was agreed that the day of the polo match Selina would sleep in.  She’d given Bruce a kiss for luck when he came to bed, and in the morning he dressed quietly to avoid waking her.  So it was a surprise when Alfred woke her mere minutes later.  He said Mercy Graves was at the door, that she had come to pick Selina up as if it had all been arranged. 

Selina assured Alfred there was no such plan, but she also knew that wouldn’t be the end of it, so she dressed quickly while he went to relay the message.  He returned in minutes, as expected, and handed over a large envelope with the LCII logo. 

“I regret, miss, that Graves’s instructions in the event that you had ‘forgotten Mr. Luthor was sending a car’ was to deliver this and wait for an answer.”

Selina shot him a questioning look as she reached for the envelope, and Alfred nodded his assurance that he had passed it through the scanners and they could speak freely.

“I figured with the polo match this afternoon, he wouldn’t bother with a ‘gift’ today,” she said opening the clasp and sliding out a packet.  “Silly… me.” 

“Miss?” Alfred asked, concerned as he noted the blood draining from her face as she peered at the contents, where a circle of black plastic with a silver clasp sat atop a stack of printed photos like a paperweight.

“Alfred, am I right in thinking you were with Bruce when he went to Metropolis that time to meet with Luthor right after the LexCorp tower opened, and that you were with them when all hell broke loose with the alarms going off, Superman and Batman showing up, Lex’s spiffy new in-house security force doing their Keystone Cops routine?”

“Yes, miss.  You are referring to the break-in Luthor himself commissioned to make it appear that plans for a new airplane had been compromised?  While one did not witness a substantial portion of the event with one’s own eyes, one was given to understand that Catwoman tripped the alarm intentionally, having grown ‘bored’ with the ease of the heist up to that point.”

Selina nodded.

“I figured I’d have a go-round with the LexCorp security boys—the building was brand new and so were they, it wasn’t going to be much of a challenge—but maybe, maybe, maybe, if I was very lucky, Superman might show.  Imagine the thrill when I got Batman too.” 

As she spoke, she had taken the top photo from the stack and held it out for Alfred to see.  It showed a close-up of Batman in an older costume in Luthor’s office, the oblique angle and time stamp indicating an enlarged still from a security video.

“I wasn’t in Lex’s office at that particular moment, but would you say this looks authentic?” Selina asked.

Alfred took the photo for closer examination, then glanced that the ones that remained in Selina’s hand: all were prints of the same image, but with grids of white and green dots superimposed on the face.  Alfred handed it back with a disapproving frown.

“Yes, miss.  As one recalls, that would have been taken in the first moments after Batman made his appearance in Mr. Luthor’s office.  The base image appears to be unaltered.  The dots, one imagines, are the addition of facial recognition software.  As you know, the master’s cowl has a myriad of special features to defeat such methods of identification.”

“Yes,” Selina said quietly.  “But look at the second time stamp on this last printout.  It says the software’s been running for years.  Even precautions have a limit.  And he’d have Bruce’s face from a dozen angles on that same camera on that same day, same lighting...”

“One shares your concern, miss.  But a time code indicating the software has been running for such a time is not proof that it actually has.”

“No, but I’m still going to go meet him,” Selina said, and when Alfred started to object, she steamrolled over him.  “Alfred, this little slideshow can mean a hundred different things but they all come down to two: he knows or he doesn’t.  If he doesn’t, he’s teasing something he doesn’t have.  If I show up and he hasn’t got Batman’s ID to reveal, he’s got to say something, and I’m going to bet it’s pretty interesting.  I’d like to hear what it is.”

“And if he does know, miss, what then?”

“I’m sure Bruce has a protocol or three that don’t involve my new best friend ‘Killer Superman’ embracing the slander long enough to scare Lex into fits, but I’m not above implying otherwise.”

When Selina left the manor, Mercy was no longer waiting at the door.  She’d gone down the steps to the front circle and was holding the car door open, staring into space like a guard at Buckingham Palace.  Selina approached expecting the usual exchange of silent venom, when Mercy broke her impersonation of a hatted drone long enough to say “Good morning, Ms. Kyle.  Gotham Times and a Paris Vogue in the back seat for you.  There’s a decanter of orange juice in the compartment, and of course phone, fax and wifi if you need them.”

“Good morning,” Selina managed, and after that, silence reigned for the short drive into the city. 

At first, it seemed like they were heading for the Gotham Museum of Art.  The car slowed where it should, but rather than stop, it changed lanes and turned left.  It didn’t go far before coming to a stop before the impressive façade that looked like the embassy of a small but prosperous nation.  Once a private club, it was now the nearly-as-private restaurant Coronet.  A doorman greeted her from atop a short flight of four limestone steps, but rather than open the grand wrought iron and glass doors, he pointed her to a more modern but discreet door to the left.  There she was welcomed by the maître d’ Philippe and shown to the sumptuously appointed private dining room: leather club chairs, a mirrored bar tucked away in a corner—and Lex Luthor sitting in the middle of it all with a Bellini, a caviar service of approximately 30g of California Golden Osetra, and a fat complacent smile that wanted scratching.

“Impeccable stage management as always, Lex,” Selina said as he rose to greet her.  “I don’t know when I’ve had such an urge to empty someone’s safe.”

“Excellent.  Knowing your propensity to eat empires, I thought I would do well to whet your appetite with something more than food.  Philippe, a white peach Bellini for the lady.”

A lifetime humoring Rogues prompted her to go along, accept the drink and play into the theme; it was the quickest way to get down to business.  But Lex’s “theme” was apparently out-Wayneing Bruce, and neither the cat, the woman, nor the future Mrs. Wayne was prepared to let that pass.

“Scratch that, Philippe,” she said, locking eyes with Lex and holding up her hand to refuse a proffered menu she hadn’t glanced at.  “If the day’s breakfast pastry is a croissant or pain au chocolate, I’ll have that to begin, otherwise greek yogurt.  Egg white frittata (Tell John it’s me, he knows how I like it) and coffee.”

Lex gave a rueful smile like he’d lost a pawn.  He ordered the same—and privacy.  Philippe left, and Selina tilted her head, waiting for the show to begin.

“You’ve had brunch here before, I take it,” Lex said amiably.  “I should have known.  There could not be a spot in Gotham serving caviar for breakfast that an effete hedonist like Bruce Wayne doesn’t know.  I trust the theme of the week’s gifts was not lost on you: one can spend enormous sums on frivolities to gain status among the inbreds, or one can live exceedingly well while holding the bulk of one’s wealth in reserve for the application of real power.  Knock down some bodies with it,” he concluded like a sportsman discussing his one true pleasure.

“What was apparently lost on you, Lex, is that all those gifts were returned.”

“Except the last,” he said swiftly. 

Selina hadn’t exactly forgotten why she’d come, but she had allowed that last delivery to sink into the back of her consciousness while she gave her full attention to the verbal sparring.  Now the reminder slithered in her stomach.

“Not yet,” she said, reaching into her purse, pulling out the photos and bracelet and setting them firmly on the table.  “There.  Returned.  Entertain me: what did it mean?”

“It simply occurred to me that you may be fond of the Trust Fund, but it is still the Batman who interests you above all.  At our last team-up, with the choice of infiltrating any Justice League target, you did pick the Batcave.” 

“That has nothing to do with Bruce,” Selina pointed out.

“Precisely!  You had already been with him for a considerable time, but he has not captured your attention sufficiently that you would pass on the chance to tweak Batman’s nose.  So I decided to abandon the parables of conspicuous consumption…”

“He says between bites of caviar,” Selina noted.

“…and contrived a proposition that really will tempt you.  Your very presence here proves that.”  He picked up the photos with the bracelet balanced on the top, and held them out formally in both his hands, like a samurai presenting a katana. 

The slithering in Selina’s gut shifted, as if one of the several snakes in there was eating the others.

“Lex, you know how you’re always going on about Gotham theme crazies.  Here’s something you don’t know about me: I speak fluent Riddler.  Anagrams and all, I speak fluent Riddler but I can’t make any sense out of this.”

“I’ve been too circumspect,” Lex said patiently.  “Please, put on the bracelet and all will become clear.”

“Better idea, you put it on,” Selina said, holding it out for him.

“A splendid idea.  That will illustrate the point just as well, and dispel those suspicions which are to be expected in a woman of your cunning.” 

He opened his briefcase and extracted a tablet.  As he powered it up, he fastened the circle of plastic to his wrist and when the tablet startup screen asked for a password, he waved his arm over it like a wizard.  Nothing happened.

“You see, it is not calibrated for me.  Now you try.”

He removed the bracelet, held it out, and Selina fastened it to her wrist.  She waved her hand over the tablet the way he had, and the password prompt slid to the side revealing the desktop.

“You see?  A heartbeat is nearly as unique as a fingerprint.  This device, the LexBeat, is a Bluetooth-enabled bracelet that measures your heartbeat to verify your identity and unlocks your door, your car, your laptop, pays for coffee, or logs into your email.  No more keys, swipecards or passwords required.”

“Well that’s not at all creepy,” Selina said under her breath.

“The LexBeat,” he repeated reverently.  “The breakthrough technology that will catapult LC-II to the stature of the former LexCorp.  I sampled your heartbeat initially at the St. Regis with the idea of presenting you, as the ultimate thief, with this prototype of the ultimate key.  You alone, of all the thieves in the world, would have a head start learning its secrets, finding its exploits.”

“That was your initial idea, and then you realized it was nuts and opted for a caviar breakfast in a hidden dining room in the shadow of the museum,” Selina said hopefully.

“Then I realized I had no need to compete with Wayne because all his wealth and position could not divert your interest from the Batman.  I would do better with this tantalizing bait, a photo teasing Batman’s identity—or at least the quest to obtain it—linked to our first team-up.”

He touched an icon on the unlocked tablet, and the photo of Batman appeared in what looked like an animated simulation of facial recognition software. 

There was a brief interruption while the food arrived.  Selina waited, seething; Lex waited, smug.  As the coffee was poured, she weighed the idea of throwing it at him against the inadvisability of letting him know he’d found a hot button.  As soon as the waiter was gone, Lex was again ready to resume midsentence as if he’d never been interrupted, but this time, Selina was ready.

“First, that wasn’t a team-up,” she began.

“As you never tire of reminding me!” he laughed—a laugh during which Lex Luthor had no idea how close he came to wearing hot coffee.  “I hired you to steal the X-27 plans and tried to renege on paying you.  You mustn't pretend you mind men who challenge you,” he said, tapping the Batman image on the screen.  “We shan’t call it a team-up then.  But it was our first ‘business deal’ if you prefer, and there he is.  What better omen could you wish?  He isn’t that familiar a figure in Metropolis, but your presence brought him out.  We can make him our first joint project—tell me the Trust Fund could ever make you such an offer!”

“What offer exactly?” Selina asked, exasperated. 

“A joint effort beyond the mere intermingling of property.”

Oh ICK ICK ICK ICK ICK, Selina thought, though she said nothing.

“All you would need to do is use your considerable talents to sample the Batman’s heartbeat and initialize one of these.  The LexBeat will soon be the standard for personalized identification for everything from cell phones to debit cards.  Once the whole world is using it, we’ll be able to match his and learn his identity.”

“Wow, Lex, you… need a hobby,” was the best Selina could manage.

“I am not a greedy man,” he declared, apparently not hearing her. “When we know who he is under that mask, I would let you have him as your own personal project, a pet to amuse yourself as you wish.”

Selina had broken off a piece of croissant, set down her knife poised over the butter, and reached instead to spoon a dollop of caviar onto the morsel.

“You have my attention,” she purred in a new voice, then popped the bite into her mouth and chewed slowly, like a cat savoring cream.

Harleen Quinzel may have taken a few educational shortcuts which allowed her to join the Arkham staff as a doctor without the underlying expertise the title implied.  But even though she skipped over all that boring stuff in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that would have been prudent before attempting a one-on-one session with the Joker, she did pay attention in the first weeks of every class before it all got so dang boring.  As such, she knew the Week One, Day One bullet points on Poison Ivy before she ever met her friend Red.  She knew Pamela Isley’s herbaceous-sympathetic biochemistry (or something like that) meant that opiate-derivatives like morphine would have no effect on her unless she ‘consented,’ while drugs that were completely synthesized like valium would work, at least to some degree, on their own.  Alcohol was made from grapes and grains.  Like opiates, it had no effect unless Ivy allowed it, so Harley figured the usual warnings about mixing with valium didn’t apply. 

With her typical lack of Chapter 2 understanding, she didn’t consider the possibility that valium would relax all those internal mechanisms, allowing plant-based substances to affect her regardless of any deliberate lowering of defenses.  As such, Pamela swallowed that valium the morning of the Ashwood Acres Invitational without the slightest hint that her morning tea had CAFFEINE IN IT thatinabodythatneverexperiencedcaffeinebeforewasprettydamndisconcerting.  Her heart thumped.  Her head thumped.  Even her teeth thumped.  That led to what seemed like a sensible idea: brushing her teeth, resulting in a buzz from her mouthwash that evened out the caffeine. 

It made for a strange morning, but it was certainly nothing to warrant a change in plans, and she arrived at the polo match in a curious state that was equal parts mellow and wired.  It was a long time since she’d done anything so totally new and she must remember to thank Bruce for thinking of her… Although now that she was walking through the gravel parking lot towards the entrance to a big field for a sporting event, she realized maybe it wasn’t completely new.  It had still been a while…  Before high school, in fact; before she realized plants made better friends than people… but she did know this.  This is what friends did.  Junior Varsity basketball, when you knew people on the team, you went to watch them play.

She giggled.  It was so silly.  Bruce Wayne asking her to come watch him play polo like that gangly blonde kid with the retainer.  What was his name?  Kurt something, Ken something?  She couldn’t remember but it certainly didn’t matter since he undoubtedly grew up into a man and probably a salad eater who should die screaming.  Speaking of, that looked like Mercy Graves getting out of that limousine over there.  A woman devoted heart and soul to the most detestable of men: Lex Luthor.  Luthor was the ultimate industrialist, rapist of the forests and exploiter of nature's resources—and oh look, there he was actually getting out of the car.  So the driver didn’t just look like Mercy, she actually was Mercy and…

Pamela blinked.

Why was Selina getting out of Luthor’s limo?

 

The Ashwood Acres Polo Invitational
benefiting the International Orphans Fund

Special thanks to our sponsors:
The Thomas and Martha Wayne Memorial Foundation
and
NMK Inc.

 

Jason Blood read the sign that stood as the invisible border between the parking lot and the polo grounds, wondering why he’d come.  He had no good reason to be there and two very good reasons not to.  Animals sometimes sensed Etrigan.  It was rare but it happened, and if any of the horses picked up on the demonic presence during the game, they might react with alarm.  He could minimize the risk by keeping his distance from the field, but it was still a foolish risk to take… and he couldn’t say for sure why he was doing it.  He rubbed his temple absently, beginning to suspect the truth.

You did this, he thought sourly.  And in his mind, he could envision Etrigan’s smirk. 

Like Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
   I put strange thoughts in your head.
More than thrice the branching limes have blown
   Since you beheld your Clara dead.
A great enchantress she was not
   Unlike that Tennyson tart.
But quite a meal that Ashton made
   Of Jason’s Bloody heart.

You’re a shit, Etrigan.  But you can butcher Tennyson all you want, I know whatever prompted you to bring me here has nothing to do with Claire.

Jason glanced at the sign again, reassuring himself.  Claire was an Ashton but she had run away from her family in the ‘20s and the estate was gone decades before that.  While Etrigan would enjoy tormenting him with that old wound, he couldn’t believe it was worth the trouble.  The field shared the name of a house that Claire never lived in, had only the slightest familial connection to.  How much of a reminder could there be?

No, there must be some other reason to bring him here, something that was going to happen that Etrigan wanted to see, which was reason enough to remain.  If chaos threatened, it was wise to be nearby and help out any way he could.  Of course it was also possible that something was going to happen that Etrigan wanted to participate in.  He would have to be on his guard.

“What on earth is Selina doing with him?”

Pamela turned, shocked to hear her own thought spoken almost word for word in someone else’s voice.

“I was wondering the same thing,” she told the total stranger, who then grinned a wide, hungry grin of society gossip teeth.  “I mean Lex and Bruce are like oil and water.”

“Like dogs and cats, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

“What can she be thinking?” they said together.  Then…

“Gladys Ashton-Larraby,” the woman introduced herself. 

“Persephone Primrose Isley-Ivington,” Pammy replied in the every-vowel-a-diphthong voice she used to mock Selina’s social connections.

Gladys recognized the name but wasn’t sure if they were Old Mississippi, South Carolina or Texas, and Pammy said yes they were. 

By tradition, everyone ignored the wooden bleachers at Ashwood Acres.  The more casually-dressed spectators set up their blankets and folding chairs on the eastern 2/3 of the viewing area on the south side of the field.  The remaining third was cordoned off as VIP viewing for sponsored events.  A tent which served as bar, buffet and check-in for those events was situated in the southwest corner of that, virtually the first thing one saw walking in from the parking lot.  It all looked very stratified, but the reality was that everyone knew each other.  Today’s party guest was next week’s picnicker and vice versa, and since the picnic baskets had better food and drink, there was a lot of crossing back and forth.

The tent had three entrances, two that opened onto the viewing area and polo field, the other to the parking lot.  There was a folding table outside the last, theoretically manned by one or two volunteers from the beneficiary organization.  It was all very casual, usually.  The volunteer would greet guests as they arrived and check invitations against the list, while offering literature about the organization’s good works and perhaps pushing a few raffle tickets.  Except this week it was the Wayne Foundation’s Madison Hargrove manning the table, and since most of the Orphans Fund donors were also Foundation donors, she didn’t need to check the list.  She knew everyone already—better than their therapists in most cases.  And since it was the first time she’d had a chance to see Chip Rollingford since he got back from hot air ballooning over the Alps, she’d ask about that.  Or how Irene was settling in at Hudson.  Or if the Gardners had seen the New European Paintings Galleries at the museum yet (knowing they hadn’t) or the new tasting menu at the Great Hall Balcony Bar (knowing they had).  For once, the stream of pleasant chatter (which so often closed around their wallets to secure a five-figure donation) merely concluded with the hope that they would enjoy their afternoon.  Trip Endicott bought $50 in raffle tickets as a reflex, and Chet Lassiter found himself suggesting Thursday for that lunch he’d been dodging for months. 

Madison was reveling in the victory (she was sure Lassiter would be good for a quarter million on the new Trauma Wing if only she could only sit him down for an hour without interruption) when a shadow fell over her clipboard and she looked up to see the most famous figure in the world descending from a six-foot hover to stand respectfully before the table.

“Good morning.  I’m Superman,” he said as if anyone needed to be told.  “I’m not sure if I’m on the list, but I believe I’m escorting Miss Kyle today.  I brought a little something for the cause.”

A lesser woman might have been too dazzled to react, but lesser women did not become Development Director at the Wayne Foundation.  Madison looked up at the Man of Steel—then in a straight line that began with a diamond the size of a fortune cookie resting in his open palm, up his forearm and past his cape to see Selina in the distance getting out of Lex Luthor’s car.  Her smile never wavered as she closed her hand over the jewel.

“Allow me to thank you on behalf of the Orphans Fund and the Wayne Foundation,” she said warmly.  “Selina hasn’t checked in yet, so let me walk you in myself.  You probably know Bruce Wayne is playing today, so Lucius Fox and some of the others are welcoming guests inside.  You know Mr. Fox, I’m sure…” 

She steered him inside and shot a ferocious look back towards the parking lot, wishing she had some means to send a message.  Superman played along, though of course he’d seen Luthor’s car driving up as he flew in and Alfred had told him why Selina wasn’t at the manor when he arrived to pick her up.  He would wait until they saw each other publicly and follow her lead.  Until then, there was nothing to do but treat it like any other public appearance, and do what he could to keep this Madison woman’s heart from exploding.  She was certainly putting on an amazing show of calm considering her inner turmoil. 

“Not sure how familiar you are with the game,” she chattered as she led him through the tent, out the other side and to the farthest end of the VIP viewing area.  “But the basic concept is ‘the line of the ball,’ an imaginary line created by the ball as it travels on the field.  The player who hit the ball has the right of way, and other players aren’t allowed to cross the line in front of him.  An opponent can try to move him off the line by riding alongside him to block, hook his mallet, bump with his horse or steal the ball away.”

Even among the Gotham cognoscenti, it was a rare specimen who could feign indifference when Superman arrived at a party.  Madison could see all eyes following them.  Normally she would lead a prestigious guest into the circle of the biggest donor present.  She would leave him there as a reward while she went to find the most promising prospective donor she was cultivating and bring him or her over for an introduction.  But today, damage control had to take precedence over fundraising, and Lucius was an old hand at that.  She handed off the Man of Steel with the old signal that meant a Fop Faux-Pas was in progress.  She could only hope Lucius would realize that with Bruce playing, it must be Selina who was the source of the trouble this time.

As soon as Superman was secured, Madison raced back to the table, though of course Selina wouldn’t have waited to ‘check in.’  As a sponsor and defacto hostess for the Foundation, she would have waltzed right in, and since the trickle of early arrivals had become a flood of invited guests and regular spectators, there was little chance that Madison could intercept her. 

In fact, there was no chance at all.  Madison reached the table with a defeated huff, finding it was exactly as she expected: Selina and Luthor had vanished into the crowd.

Selina had accepted a ride from the restaurant, but she had no intention of letting Luthor’s machinations prevent her seeing Bruce’s entrance onto the field.  She scoped the crowd with Catwoman’s cunning, looking for a trap to plop him into.  There were two bars set up inside the tent, one at each end, each with a short queue.  There she saw the back of Mrs. Ashton-Larraby, who had some poor soul trapped against the edge of the bar.

“Oh yes, this whole property once belonged to my family,” she was saying.  “Ashwood was built at the same time as Wayne Manor, you know.  But the house is long gone and the estate was broken up into bits through the 1800s.  One of those awful new families, the Vanderbilts I think it was, bought the biggest plot that became the park and polo grounds.  This is the 83rd Invitational, but only the ninth time it’s to benefit the Orphans Fund.”

Perfect!  Selina moved through the tent as she always did at crowded parties, leading with her shoulder and using it as a wedge to open a path through accommodating gentlemen, all the while keeping up a light effortless patter with Lex about those Brazilian oil leases he’d lost out o—OH!  “Excuse me, I’m so sorry,” she said before realizing who she’d bumped into.  “Gladys! You did make it.  I’m so glad.  What a pretty hat.  You must know Lex Luthor.  Lex, Gladys and her husband Randolph were two of your biggest supporters.”

She had no idea if it was true, but Gladys could hardly deny it.  She’d be stuck with him, and as she now had someone new to talk about the Ashtons with, he’d be stuck with her.  Selina turned to the tent flap to make her escape, when she found herself staring into the eyes of the poor soul she’d just rescued.

“Persephone Primrose Isley-Ivington,” Gladys announced.

“Charmed,” Luthor said, pretending he didn’t recognize Poison Ivy when he saw her and taking refuge in the frozen campaign smile that had gotten him through worse imbecilities than this.

“Persephone,” Selina said as if there was no one she would be happier to see—and making a mental note to smack Bruce in the head at the first opportunity.  Inviting Queen Chlorophyll was one thing—but inviting her and then forgetting! 

“Selina, my dear,” came the equally saccharine reply.  Air kisses followed, during which they mutually realized they wanted to get away from Gladys and Luthor more than they wanted to scratch at each other.  A two-part whisking motion followed in which Selina turned one way to take drinks from a passing waiter—but never turned back, and Pammy turned the other to straighten the back of her skirt—but never turned back.  They ‘met’ on the other side of Luthor, Selina handed Ivy a drink, and they chatted their way out the door.

“It was so nice of Bruce to invite me,” Pamela said with a warmth that was positively frightening to anyone who knew her.  “A day outdoors, away from the city.  So much green you all have out here.  It’s just magnificent.”

“Yes, quite like Robinson Park with horses isn’t it?” Selina managed. 

“Oh, no comparison.  The park is lovely, of course, but the plant to human ratio is appalling.  Millions of people in all that asphalt and concrete, with so few trees and flowers to keep their spirits up.  Which is why it was just so thoughtful of Bruce to ask me here today.  Just look, so few of us are here with so much green to enjoy.  Why you have so much grass you can afford to ride horses across it and not even care how much gets kicked up.”  She laughed, and Selina joined in politely but warily. 

“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” she said, scoping the outdoor crowd now with a new eye to escape.  “So, you and Bruce have been running into each other quite a bit in town, I take it?”

“Oh yes, but I wouldn’t dream of boring you with all my silly projects.  Do tell me all about the cats.”

“Excuse me?” Selina blinked.

“Your cats,” Ivy repeated brightly.  “Um, now that you live at the manor, your cats must be so much happier than they were in the city.  Outdoors, more plants, less city, much better for them.”

“Well, they are indoor cats so it probably doesn’t make that much of a difference to them,” Selina said carefully.  “As I was saying, about Bruce…”

“Right!  Bruce.  Cats and Bruce.  I was saying just a minute ago that it’s so marvelous the way Bruce’s foundation is helping all those animal shelters.  Such a wonderful man.  Who knew there even was such a thing.  But there is and you found him, Selina, it’s quite extraordinary.”

“Mhm,” Selina said dully.

“And Batman,” Ivy said as if the non sequitur made perfect sense.

“What?”

“Batman,” she nodded, making a brave show of the repetition as if it didn’t cover a frantic stalling for time.  She took a sip of the drink Selina had handed her, trying feverishly to adapt the Friendless E-Edition Six Ways to Make Paper check list.  “Batman… is… another example… of… uh person… we both know and might discuss… since—OH! since he crashed that dinner party.  The last time you and Bruce had one of these fundraising things, Batman came crashing in and Bruce threw him out.”

“The stories about what happened that night are a little exaggerated,” Selina said hurriedly, but Pamela wasn’t listening.  Her eyes had focused on something far over Selina’s shoulder.

“Oh dear, what Botrytis blight has blown in from Metropolis?  Whatever could she want?”

Even before the personal pronoun, Selina had half-turned, caught sight of Mercy Graves coming out from the tent, and scowled.  Within Pamela something relaxed.  She had spoken without thinking, forgetting the first principle—Don't criticize, condemn, or complain—and called the woman a Botrytis blight.  She was bracing herself to walk it back, preparing to stifle every proper feeling about that nauseating disgrace to the gender, when she saw she didn’t have to.  Selina’s scowl said it all.  Selina shared her view—Gaia be praised!

“I assume it’s time for Lex’s 2 o’clock boot lick,” she murmured.

“Selina, you raise cattiness to an art form,” Pamela said reflexively in response to the ebook’s prompt to give honest and sincere compliments.  “Let’s have another drink.  These chukkers are pretty good.”

Selina hadn’t touched hers, so she handed over her glass.  As she sipped, Pam returned to the subject of Mercy, who was so obviously looking over the crowd on a mission for Lex like a retriever sniffing down her master’s kill.  She had always considered Mercy more of an offense than Luthor.  He was a man, and since they were all a vile land-raping pestilence, he wasn’t much worse than what you’d expect.  But Mercy was a woman, a woman who devoted herself to his interests.  His despicable plant-killing interests.  She personified the worst of Harley, her mindless devotion to a brute that didn’t deserve it, without any of the redeeming charm.  She embodied those aspects of Harley that tormented Ivy, and she presented a way for Ivy to hate it without any of the odium spilling onto Harley itself. 

She didn’t say any of that explicitly, but she said enough that Selina, knowing all the players and being far from stupid, understood.  Selina wasn’t explicit either, but Pam could tell she agreed.  It felt… good.  After so many days of holding it in, listening to everyone talk about their stupid concerns and squelching every proper urge to tell them about hers, to finally get to say what she felt, to have someone listen and agree, she…

She bit her lip.  No wonder Bruce invited her, this being listened to felt great!  She wanted to spend more time with Selina now, Selina whom she didn’t even like.  Selina who had actually arrived with…

Why did Selina arrive with Luthor anyway?

Before she could ask, Mercy had spotted them.  She ignored Pam and spoke directly to Selina.

“The players are about to take the field,” she intoned with slightly less animation than a hatted drone.  “Mr. Luthor hopes you’ll watch the opening promenade with him, seeing that Bruce has abandoned you.”

“He’s playing,” Pamela said in tones that clearly meant ‘What kind of idiot are you?’

“As a fellow sponsor, Mr. Luthor hopes you will allow him to escort you,” Mercy tried again, ignoring Pam and taking refuge in an even deader monotone.

“No thank you, I’ve made other arrangements—ah, there he is,” Selina said, craning her neck for any sign of a red cape and moving firmly through the crowd in a fixed direction even though she didn’t see it.  Unfortunately, Mercy followed on her right elbow, feeling that if she couldn’t succeed in actually bringing Selina back to Luthor, she must at least appear to try.  Pammy attached herself to Selina’s left elbow as if to counteract Mercy.  They moved through the crowd in an arrowhead formation as the PA system squealed and the announcer welcomed everyone to The 83rd Ashwood Invitational… 

The roster of the teams dimmed in Jason’s ear, drowned by Etrigan’s laughter.  He looked around to see the cause, and spotted Selina coming towards him as if she was towing Poison Ivy and Mercy Graves.  With the determined gallantry of another era, he stepped forward to assist, greeting all three ladies by name and remarking, over Etrigan’s taunts, what fine weather there was for the game.

None of the three responded, however, and all three looked past him. 

“Jason, how are you.  Everyone’s turned out for a good cause,” said Superman, clasping Jason’s arm as he passed and then greeting Selina with a warm handshake.  “Ladies,” he added with an insincere smile for Mercy and Ivy, which neither quite processed.  Both were now staring at Jason, Mercy saying she had no idea he would be there today while Ivy downed her drink in a gulp.

…:: …Julio Collins and Bruce Wayne playing for the Bristol Club… ::… the announcer intoned.

As the players trotted past, a lifetime of Bat-discipline prevented Bruce reacting as he saw Selina flanked by Jason Blood, Poison Ivy, Mercy Graves and Superman… all but Mercy smiling and waving at him… and some distance behind them, Lex Luthor standing alone… staring at their backs… looking no less perplexed than Bruce himself.

It’s not unprecedented for spectators at a polo match to be more interested in each other than the game.  Selina and Superman knew they would be a major attraction through the first chukkers, and they were determined that no matter how much other people watched them, they would be engrossed watching Bruce.  Superman pointed more often than necessary.  More than once, Selina laughed with delight and clutched his other arm in response to whatever he was pointing out.  Those watching had long ago made up their minds whether the Selina Kyle of Cat-Tales was really Catwoman the cat burglar or merely an actress who’d played a role in a stage show.  Nobody actually changed their view, but those who’d decided she was an actress felt vindicated.  Selina’s giddy excitement was perfectly understandable in an ordinary woman who found herself on a date with Superman, but it didn’t seem at all likely in Catwoman.  Of those who knew the truth, reactions varied.  To Mercy, it just meant she was off the hook bringing Selina to Luthor.  To Lex, it was a piece of theatre enacted for his benefit, and his fury at being thwarted vied with exhilaration.  Using the Alien like her catspaw, what audacity! 

To Pamela, watching through a thickening haze of white wine spritzer and valium, it buzzed like a persistent insect who ought to be pollinating some blossoms but was intent on annoying her instead.  There’s a right of way among Rogues, just as there was on the polo field.  Clearly, Catwoman had a ball in play, the line extending between Luthor and Superman.  Even Joker would know it was bad form to interfere, though he probably wouldn’t care.  But Pamela was better than that—Poison Ivy was better than that—but, still, Bruce.  She passed on saving cashews in order to be his friend.  It seemed a betrayal of them to give him less than her best.  Was she supposed to just stand by while Selina made a fool of him?  Launching some grandiose Luthor-Superman-Cat-scheme…  On the field, one of the two mounted umpires called a foul for crossing the line as Pamela realized Bruce would have to change horses between chukkers.  She could just pop off to the side of the field and drop a few hints.

“I wouldn’t do that,” a polished voice said behind her.

She spun around ferociously, and saw the odious Jason Blood smiling that acid smile of his.

“Wouldn’t do what?” she asked with acid of her own.  The monster who was immune to her pheromones, whom her plants refused to attack, and who had the unmitigated gall to talk to her as if he understood her. 

“Whatever you just decided to do,” he said as an announcement came over the PA that Bristol was awarded a penalty shot.  “Whatever you decided to involve yourself in that is most certainly not your concern.”

“You wouldn’t do that,” Pamela said sarcastically.  “You are doing that.  You do that every time I see you.”

Jason tilted his head as if listening to another voice.  Pamela assumed he was waiting for more from the PA and turned her attention to the field.  Bruce was lining up to take his shot sixty yards from an undefended goal.

“A fair point,” he conceded.  “The difference, I suppose, is the type of thing that doesn’t concern me that I chose to meddle in, compared to you.  Might I ask what brought you here today?”

“Bruce invited me,” Pamela said, which Jason reworded as “You mean you finagled an invitation out of him” before she’d even finished.  “I do not mean that,” she said icily.  “I mean exactly what I said.  We’ve been running into each other in town.  It turned into lunch.  We had a nice talk and he called later and invited me here.”

“Why?” Jason asked piercingly.

“I assume because he liked talking to me,” Pamela said, biting off the last words one at a time.  “It is possible, you know.  People can like me.”

She felt a silvery chill as Jason’s eyes bored into hers, and just for a second, everything went blank and still—until a chorus of “Ohhhs” bemoaned Bruce missing the goal.

“Curious,” Jason said softly, then offered a courtly nod and said.  “Enjoy your afternoon.”

Pam stared after him, her lip twisted in a mix of disgust and shock.  Every meeting with that man was stranger than the last… 

A loud clap pulled her focus back to the game, and as she turned to see a player from the opposing team bumping his horse into Bruce’s to force him out of the way, her gaze passed over Superman playing up to Selina again.  Hmph.  It was just the reminder she wanted (After all, his Foundation did give enough to environmental causes that she’d been able to voice honest and sincere appreciation without making anything up!) and she raced off to the northwest end of the field where the Bristol team would retreat to change horses at the end of the chukker.

She got there with more than a minute to spare.  Stood among the grooms, waiting for her chance to see Bruce… when a bell rang.  It was meant to signal thirty seconds to the end of the chukker, but began to sound more like a warning claxon as Pamela saw Selina approaching.  Root Rot!  She must have the same idea of having a word with Bruce as he changed mounts.  Feeling her presence would be unwelcome (and hard to explain), Pamela ducked behind the nearest shelter, which happened to be a line of horse trailers. 

From there, she saw just enough of Bruce and Selina’s greeting that the dire warning she had planned didn’t seem so urgent.  They looked… sweet together.  Pamela squinted at Selina through a wine spritzer prism: she looked the way lvy had felt that day in Philadelphia playing tourist with Harley.  With a wave of sobering lucidity, she realized that earlier with Luthor and Superman, Selina looked like Ivy had felt on those first dates with Harvey: playing the silly oaf, stringing him along until the moment was right to use her pheromones.  But she didn’t look that way with Bruce.  She… She wasn’t using Bruce.  She must actually…

“They’re cute, aren’t they?” an unfamiliar voice said.  Pamela turned to see a woman that might have stepped out of an advertisement that featured the words ‘clean country living’ more than necessary.  Her age was hard to guess.  She wore no make-up.  Thick brown hair with a rich wholesome sheen pulled back in a ponytail, the severity offset by bangs that framed her face.  She wore a tan suede jacket over a black shirt, jeans and riding boots whose wear endorsed the authenticity of the outfit. 

“Claire Sabana.  I’m the trainer,” she said, extending her hand.  Pamela shook it and introduced herself, and Claire continued.  “When I first went to work for Mr. Wayne, he was kind of a creep.  New man now.  Must have something to do with her.  He only mentions her every time he comes out to the stables.” 

“Any particular reason you’re telling me this?” Pamela asked bluntly.

“Any particular reason you’re hiding behind my trailer to spy on them?”

Something about the woman’s directness prompted the same in return, and Pamela found herself explaining that she’d come down with the idea of talking to Bruce because ‘it’s what friends do,’ thought the better of it when she saw Selina coming and fled, and that now she just felt like an ass.  Her cheeks were on fire, wondering why she’d said all that out loud, but amazingly Claire nodded.

“Sounds like me; I’m a mess with people.  Good with horses though.  All my life, I’ve loved being around horses.”

“Sounds like me and plants,” Pam agreed.  “People can be exhausting but plants are so easy.  They make me happy.”

“Yes, exactly.  They make me happy.  I’m certainly in a better mood at the end of the day when I’ve been around horses for a while, because I’ve been able to care for something and help something.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Pam said, considering it.

No one knew exactly how it happened, but in the middle of the next chukker, a young boy toddled under the ropes that separated the viewing area from the playing field.  Alarm rippled through the spectators as the horses that were clustered downfield began to race towards the center where the toddler stood, oblivious to the danger, alarm that gave way to thrilled gasps as Superman ran in to pick up the boy and flew him out of harm’s way.  Up first… then over to hover above the spectators… and finally lowering into the crowd which fell back at first to make a clearing and then closed around the caped hero and his young passenger in a swarm of relief and admiration.

The umpires stopped the game as they would for a penalty, and players circled their horses in the minutes it took to ascertain exactly what had happened.  Everyone else, both players and umpires, looked to the cluster of spectators around Superman.  Only Bruce scanned the crowd for Selina, knowing he would see Luthor taking advantage of the diversion he’d undoubtedly arranged. 

“Bravissima, Bella Gatta,” it had begun the moment Superman left her side. 

“Go away, Lex, take the hint,” Selina said, pulling away the hand he tried to take.

“You ‘take the hint,’ Selina.  You came to brunch this morning knowing you had this in store for me.  You were planning to use the Alien to rout me just as I was preparing those photos of Batman for you.  Don’t you see the synchronicity.  You have a mind that is positively Lexian.  You plot like a Luthor!”

They were too far away for Bruce to read their lips, but Catwoman was an adversary for years.  He knew every degree, shade and nuance of her hostility, and he could see that Lex had just done something… bad

“Then we’ll start cantering side by side, get her used to interacting in close quarters with another horse – meeting, bumping, rubbing – so she’s carrying herself with confidence before we get into the more complicated stuff like being comfortable with a mallet swinging around her head...”

It was absolutely incredible how something that wasn’t a plant could be so interesting.

“Malberry over there still puts her ears back when she encounters a horse going the other way.  Her body doesn’t react, just her ears…”

It was simply amazing.  They were dumb animals who trampled plants and ate them and subjected them to countless indignities, but hearing Claire Sabana talk about horses, Pamela felt such… such… she wasn’t sure what it was.  Claire was passionate about horses just as Ivy was about plants, and, and she found a connection with horses that she couldn’t get from people, just like Ivy did with plants, and it was… it was… quite… quite…  she wasn’t sure what it was actually but… “What’s that sound?” she asked suddenly.

Claire stopped and looked around. 

“Somebody is either retching or crying – this way,” she said, getting up from where she had settled with Pamela to sit in the shade and chat, since the last chukker when Bruce would be riding Rio was the only one she cared about seeing.

Pamela followed, and together they found Mercy Graves hiding between the trailers just as she had been.

“Oh no, oh god, oh no,” Mercy said, while Pammy interjected an “Oh you.”

“What’s wrong, are you sick?  Too much sun?” Claire asked, concerned.

“I’m sick alright,” Mercy said, holding out a phone where a video played softly, impossible to make out in the glare of the sun but the music accompanying it was Boogie Shoes.

“Is that K. C. and the Sunshine Band?” Pamela asked incredulously.

“Is that you?  Damn, you’ve got some moves, girl,” Claire said, taking the phone, holding it close to her face, shielding it with her hand, and squinting.

“This wretched concierge at the hotel… posted it on Facebook.  She tagged me.  I’ve been tagged,” Mercy said miserably.

“Serves you right,” Pamela said quietly with an impish grin upward towards the nearest tree.

“I’ve never seen anyone actually lick salt off their hand that way before doing a shot.  What’s the point of it?”

“I think it was originally to help bad tequila go down easier, now it’s just something you do,” said Mercy.

“Something you do apparently,” Pam giggled.

“Hey, what did I ever do to you?” Mercy asked hotly.

“You don’t have to do anything.  Women like you are an affront just by existing,” Pam replied.  “We have horses and plants.  What do you devote yourself to?  Lex Luthor!”

“Lex Luthor, seriously?” Claire said.  And Pam nodded vigorously and introduced Mercy as his ‘chauffer-bodyguard-whatever.’

“I have other interests,” Mercy insisted.  When challenged to say what they were, Mercy drew herself up and fluctuated between defensiveness and dignity as she listed “Weight lifting...  Taekwondo… Rock Climbing.”

“Something you don’t do at the gym,” Pammy suggested.

“James Patterson, Women’s Murder Club series… and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Claire and Pam looked at each other.

“Cheap tequila and K.C. and the Sunshine Band,” Pam added wickedly.

“Look, it’s not like you’ve done anything wrong here,” Claire pointed out, handing back her phone.  “Not going to cost you your job or anything, is it?”

Pam looked expectantly at Mercy: here it was.  She was sure Lex didn’t care what Mercy did with her time any more than Joker cared about Harley, but she was just as sure that Mercy was as deluded as Harley about the man in her life being as invested in her as…

“No, I doubt he’d care if he saw it,” Mercy said stoically—and Pamela stared.  “It’s just embarrassing,” she went on.  “A video on the internet, like some freshman at a keg party.”  Pamela coughed, and Mercy looked up sharply.  “Oh yeah, that’s right.  It happened to you a few years back.  Fun, huh?”

It had.  Grimy men had posted video of her for the entertainment of other grimy men.  She remembered the humiliation.  She remembered the hate.  And she felt… something she normally only felt for plants.  She felt empathy.  She knew what Mercy was experiencing; she had been there herself.  In her case, it was a lot of anonymous strangers passing around the video, but Mercy knew who was responsible for hers.

“Tell me about this concierge,” she said with an evil luster in her eye…

Halftime brought the ritual stomping of divots, and Bruce surveyed the crowd that took the field.  He would have liked a sitrep from Clark or Selina, but he knew it wasn’t feasible.  They were being watched too closely.  If he approached either, every nuance of their movement and posture would be analyzed.  So he looked for Ivy, whom he forgot he invited…  Oh happy days before Luthor came to town, Psychobat thought sourly.  That carefree time before ‘What is Cassie doing in Tim’s room’ when he would have run a blood test as soon as he got home to make sure forgetting Poison Ivy wasn't some chemically-induced manipulation. 

He didn’t see her at first, but he did spy Claire Sabana waving to get his attention.  She’d want to know how Rio had done in that last chukker, and since he was blocked on all other fronts, he thought he may as well get it out of the way. 

“Best chukker she’s ever given me,” he announced before Claire even asked. “There was a scramble towards the end, but we kept our cool and got a couple good goals in the three.”

Claire said she knew it as soon as she saw the saddle up; the mare’s neck and head were relaxed.  Rio had a frame you could spot easily, even three hundred yards away, “like I was just telling your friend.” 

“She still has that lazy streak,” Bruce said on semi-foppish autopilot.  “When someone will pin up with me in a bump, she doesn’t always want to push through that bump, and that’s when I feel her lack of—Excuse me, what did you say?”

“Your friend,” Claire said, pointing.  “I was showing her how Rio has one of those silhouettes you can spot three hundred yards away.”

Bruce crept silently between the trailers, where he could see Poison Ivy and Mercy Graves, sitting on a pair of folding chairs around the corner.  Ivy looked positively rapt, which seemed completely out of character unless Mercy was talking about oak trees.  But once Bruce overheard a bit of the conversation, he would have to admit it was… interesting.

“…did was ask if he knew why the Bat-Signal was lit, and that’s all it takes to get put on a list.  Now I’m, like, tagged as a tourist who’s freakishly interested in Batman.  The next morning I get an email from Rory the butler forwarding the police blotter from the Gotham Times, and he’s got 2 items highlighted as most likely causes for the signal to be lit.”

“Gaia’s garters, that’ll teach you,” Pamela laughed. 

“That’s not the end of it.  I get back to my room last night and I see housekeeping didn’t just make up the bed this time, oh no, they’ve left a Batman plush on my pillow.”

“You’ll get fired for that before the video,” Ivy guessed, and Mercy agreed. 

Bruce cleared his throat, greeted Pam and said he hoped she was having a nice afternoon.  He acknowledged Mercy briefly but politely, hoped she was enjoying the match, good cause and all that…

The exchange took no more than a minute, but it was a minute in which the trio walked around the side of the trailers where Lex happened to see them.  His eyes narrowed with suspicion, which deepened into a slow-burning malice as Bruce left the women and strode back onto the field to greet one of those hometown suck-ups.  Old Money, if it was possible to hate any form of wealth, Lex would have hated Old Money.  Nothing offended him so much as a distinction he couldn’t buy, but before that thought could be chewed and swallowed, the scene shifted again as Selina ran up to Wayne. 

She positively glowed with un-feline admiration as she pointed downfield to where he’d stolen the ball in the last chukker.  Even that nauseating scene was not to be the end of Luthor’s torment, for as disgusting as the pantomime was, his view was suddenly blocked by none other than the Alien.  Superman himself stepping into his line of sight!

“You have to admire the way Bruce Wayne uses his resources,” he said in a tone that was authoritative and conversational at the same time.  “Orphans.  No better cause.”

“The sentimentality of proles,” Lex said dismissively. 

He turned away, refusing to be drawn into a longer exchange with the sanctimonious cape that was not of a time, place and subject of his choosing.  Unfortunately, he brushed past Randolph Larraby as he went and heard a snippet of conversation about subsidiaries that were “so bloated and redundant in Metropolis” but had risen to new heights of innovation under new management.  They weren’t necessarily talking about the LexCorp divisions absorbed by Wayne, but there was a hushed he’s-right-behind-you vibe as Luthor passed…

Within the fleshy cage of Jason Blood, Etrigan got a contact high.  The triple wave of smoldering hate coursed through the demon’s being.  So… much…  bile…  Surging and snapping like hellfire.  Etrigan’s appetites flared like a hungry mortal salivating at the smell of baking bread…  Luthor’s. Hot. Hate.

The horses began to react.  Both of the mounted umpires were thrown as their horses began to buck and whinny.  Another being saddled for the next chukker reared up and knocked a groom to the ground, another broke free and bolted. 

Bruce and Selina did their best to lead the remaining divot-stompers off the field, while Mercy raced off in search of Lex.

“Oh come on!” Pam screeched unbelievingly as Mercy practically vaulted over a stumbling Claire Sabana. 

Superman had taken to the skies.  He swooped here, swooped there, collecting runaway horses as he went.  Jason was glad to see it, for as much as he wanted to help, he couldn’t see straight with the fierce thumping of an enraged Etrigan in his head.  Attempting magic without being able to concentrate was a recipe for disaster, particularly when he kept sensing… AAh-Ehh! 

His thought died at the sound.  A voice—a whinny of pain—from the past.  Jason’s head snapped around in its direction and saw—saw through time.  Claire.  Claire Ashton with the two eyes she’d had the first time he met her but at an age she never lived to see.  Jason raced to her, but by the time he reached her side, another man—clearly the husband—was helping her to her feet. 

“Gladys, are you alright?  That stupid girl knocking you aside that way,” Randolph Larraby fussed.

Feeling a surge of displaced rage—which Etrigan simultaneously inhaled like rich tobacco and blew on like an ember—Jason tore after the person who had so carelessly shoved that elderly woman to the ground.  He grabbed her shoulder and swung her around, fist drawn back, eyes blazing red with hellfire.  She blocked his right with her left—and only then did Jason perceive it was Mercy he was attacking.  Her free hand chopped expertly downward where his neck met the shoulder as her leg rose for a close-quarters knee to the groin.  He blocked that, at least, which only made her step back for a fuller Muay Thai kick. 

“Sordida spir—” he began to incant, though a dust bowl of dirty wind would only add to the chaos.  He was cut off by a different wind assailing his nostrils, a wind smelling strongly of horse.  Mercy was picked up by an overhead Superman and ferried with his last cargo of polo ponies to the far side of the field.

When the dust settled, ambulances were on the way, but with no fewer than 28 doctors in the crowd, the injured were all being attended to with more than the usual first aid.  There was obviously no question of the match resuming, but Bruce suggested the tent remain open and serving as long as any guests remained. 

He was thinking of those waiting for someone in their party who was getting first aid or those who’d been separated needing a central place to find each other, but Gladys assumed otherwise.

“We’ll call it a garden party,” she announced.  “The grounds here at Ashwood are gorgeous, after all.  There’s no reason to let this unpleasantness spoil the day.”

A short distance away, Jason shook his head.  The silly cow.  She was nothing like Claire, she was the embodiment of all Claire had run away from, but her voice, her cry of pain, her eyes… 

He had a glass of ice and was wrapping several cubes in a napkin.  He had planned to dab his knuckles and other bruises, but now, with that mockery of Claire before him, he decided he preferred pain.

“Little help here,” he heard—in a tone as contemptuous as he felt. 

Jason turned to see Pamela Isley helping another woman hobble to the seat next to him, and he leapt to his feet to help.  Pam said they’d suffered “a drive-by Mercy Graves” and Etrigan giggled in Jason’s mind.

Thanks to Graves she had a scare,
Coincidence not stopping there.
Though Chance and Fluke and Happenstance
So often asks you for a dance.
Your core distrust does say ‘Beware.’
Tough luck, old sod, this one’s a

“Claire Sabana,” she said, offering her hand.

Jason extended his hand and introduced himself on autopilot while his mind raged.  Her name was Claire.  Of course her name was Claire, because that’s just the kind of day he was having. 

Pamela left them with an acidic warning that “Just because he looks at you when you speak, don’t assume he’s listening to what you say.  It’s his idea of being polite.” 

It was enough to set off Etrigan again, whose laughter still sounded a bit intoxicated. 

Claire didn’t ask what it meant, and Jason didn’t bother to explain.  They chatted while the party flowed around them.  Some guests did leave, but many stayed.  Samantha Ambrose reminded everyone how they used to show movies on the lawn here in the summer, free and open to the public.  Mrs. Ashton-Larraby remembered how, before that, there were free open air concerts.  Since all the members of the Ashwood Conservancy were present, an impromptu vote was held to resume both programs, and since all the members of the Wayne board were present, an impromptu vote was held to fund it.  The motions passed unanimously, and what had been a strained party atmosphere became quietly triumphant.  It was as though they were survivors of the London Blitz who had taken refuge in a shelter and, refusing to have their spirits broken, had come together to perform some great act of defiance.  Bruce was celebrated as hero of the hour and host, and Lex Luthor left in a 2014 Buick Snit.

Claire confided to Jason that Bruce had made a terrible first impression when she first went to work for him, how her respect and admiration had grown in the years since, but never so much as today.  Jason massaged his brow while Etrigan rhymed despair, affair, unfair and billionaire. 

Then two men passed saying how calm and impressive Selina had been helping people off the field in all the panic—and before that, escorting Superman.  What a woman!

Enough was enough.  Jason got up without excusing himself, leaving Claire midsentence.

“Boy, Pamela wasn’t kidding about him,” she remarked to no one in particular.

Across the tent, Bruce looked around for Selina, spotted her, and saw she had that little smirk.  She was up to something.  But before he could pursue it, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

He turned to see Jason Blood, looking grim.

“I really must speak to you both.” 

To be continued…


 

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