Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 70: The Neighborhood

The Neighborhood
by Chris Dee

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Cat-Tales: The Neighborhood - Chapter 2: SitrepSitrep


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Matches Malone inhaled, his eyes lingering just long enough on a delicately suntanned ankle to be tempted upward… along the perfect curve of a well-muscled but not over-muscled calf to the impossibly greater perfection of a thigh… that disappeared, tragically but enticingly, into the dark fabric of her skirt.  It was all the time Bruce needed—the part of his mind that managed secret identities needed—to throw off the learned instincts of Matches and begin reacting as Batman.  While his eyes continued to travel around the curve of a hip, his mind analyzed the room and the sightlines from the windows… Up the glorious line of a shamefully immodest top that barely covered unspeakably sumptuous breasts, while he considered the improbability of Catwoman bothering with a 7th floor window with fire escape access… Silky shoulders that bespoke an incredible softness that wanted touching …burdened with a red wig and Gina O’Malley’s bar-hopping ensemble tucked in her loot bag… up a perfect neck that wanted nibbling to lightly parted lips that wanted kissing. 

“Got a match?” they’d said, glistening with the sheen of pale peach lip gloss. 

Batman lost his train of thought but only for a split-second, and then made up for the lapse as his eyes snapped up to meet hers, now certain shed come in from the street entrance, which was why she’d dressed that way.  The world was allowed to see Gina O’Malley walking down the street in Hell’s Kitchen on her way to see Matches Malone.  That left only one question, too important to trust to deduction.  He fell back on their old sign language, and was answered by a laugh that was equal parts Selina and Gina.

“Relax Bruce, I ran a catascopia.  Scanned clean; all your anti-surveillance gizmos are in order.  We’re bug free.”

“Selina, what are you doing here?” he said, double checking the blinds before removing his glasses and giving her a kiss on the cheek.  “You’re supposed to be in Rio.”

“I still am, technically.  Still checked into the bungalow anyway,” she said with the naughty grin she used to answer Batman’s objections to her more felonious activities.  “Bruce is ‘out of town’ so Selina is ‘out of town’ which means Catwoman had to be out of town, and that would be boring for me.  So I let you ship me off to Rio to learn jujitsu from your old master there—even though my belt is as black as yours and I have a gold and sapphire Talisman of Charlemagne to prove it.”

“You are a skilled black belt in traditional Japanese jujitsu, yes.  But there’s something to learn from the Brazilian style, too.  And the German for that matter.”

“Is that what Batman told the former owners of the Charlemagne Talisman?” she asked sweetly and he grunted, to which she replied “Master Dias sends his best, by the way” and again he grunted.

“I thought you liked the idea of studying at one of my old dojos,” he said, peeling off Malone’s jacket and joining her on the couch.  “’Some new training and one of the best beach cultures in the world, what’s not to like,’ you said.”

“Yes, and I’m having fun,” she nodded.  “But I stumbled onto something that you’ll want in on, so I came back.  Gina will help you with your case, and then Matches can take Gina to Ireland or something and you come back to Rio and help me with mine.  Besides, I missed you.  There’s no kick being sexy in a new Lenny Niemeyer without making the corner of your lip do that twitchy thing.”

He scowled from habit at the mention of a new bikini and asked about this case of hers, but her only answer was to cross her legs.  Bruce ignored them while he took off Matches’s tie and muttered about “impossible broads.”  She said if he wasn’t going to give her a lip-twitch, he could at least give her a drink.  That produced both, and once she was happy, she proceeded with her sitrep.  By the time she finished, he had worked through several permutations of Gina’s arrival and the prospect of her returning to Matches’s life. 

“There’s no downside,” he announced.  “At first, this mission was strictly intel.  Now that I know, that objective has changed.  Your involvement could be helpful.”

She purred.  “Is that Matches inviting me to stay the night?” she asked, stretching her legs out from their casual Selina-at-home curl and re-crossing them to assume Gina’s seductively all-business posture. 

“I don’t think anyone invites Gina,” Bruce graveled, declining the return to character.  “She decides to stay and then seduces him, doesn’t she?”

“What a cynic you are,” she teased.  “But we’ll play it your way.  Exposition now, role play later.  You said the mission’s changed ‘now that you know.’  What do you know, exactly?”

“What’s going on with the Westies.  Time was they ran this neighborhood, all of it, and they ran it hard.  Cargo theft, counterfeiting, extortion, some loan sharking, stolen cars.  But no drugs, ever.  Capital offense for one of their own to be dealing.  If it was an outside gang, it would be a severe beating for a first offense and a bullet in the head if they ever came back.  These are not lightweights by anyone’s measure. 

“But after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians started coming in.  Odessa, and then later the Georgians.  Slowly at first, but as their numbers grew, it brought a level of brutality the Westies weren’t prepared for.  For survival, they were absorbed into the Falcone family, and that’s where we caught up with them during the Rogue war.  Run by Carmine’s godson, Anthony Marcuso...”

“I liked him,” Selina said.  “Just the right mix of smart and stupid, very easy to deal with.  Blind spots in all the right places.”

Bruce grunted.  “When Falcone went down, the Westies had their autonomy back,” he resumed.  “The Triads, Russians, the Colombian cartels and the Mexicans all dove to fill the void in the drug trade.  The Feds were waiting and everybody lost.”

“Except the Westies, who never wanted any part of that business so they stayed out of it,” Selina guessed with a smile.  “Happened to me once.  Joker and Croc were on a tear getting everyone organized to take down Batman.  It was going to be a structured and synchronized orgy of ouch, not really my kink.  So I went right on, you know, doing what I do and practically had the whole town to myself.  It was boring.  But it bought an old Land Rover and new groundskeeper for the Catitat.  I had some new lynxes coming in, so…”

“Not quite the same,” Bruce graveled.  “You ‘kept on doing what you do.’  Maewyn Finn grabbed the unions and construction interests, and possibly a few warehouses Nigma missed that didn’t wind up on your NMK balance sheet.”

“Maewyn Finn?” Selina said, her brow wrinkled like a confused kitten.  “I think I’ve heard the name but it’s not connecting.”

“The old Westie boss who’s come out of retirement, really before your time.  Practically invented money laundering, but more with chains of shell companies than individuals.  Could be as many as twenty businesses in a unit, with fake sales, receipts, payroll taxes,  pension—presumably going back thirty years, squeaky clean on paper.  Undetectable.  With the unions, he can take it to another level.  This new development is trouble.”

Selina’s brow remained adorably confused. 

“You said possibly a few warehouses.  Could be as many as twenty businesses, presumably going back thirty years.  Those are some unusual words for you about something like this.  How can you not be sure?”

Bruce couldn’t suppress the lip-twitch at her confidence in his methods. 

“Because Finn is running things the way he used to, from the back room of his pub.  The man’s a fossil.  Cash businesses, cash collections, paper ledgers; nothing is digital.  Oracle could trace the backscatter on Odessa’s money laundering a dozen different ways.  But this old man is a ghost.  I had no idea what he was into or how big it was.  So I had to reactivate Matches to come down here in person and dig.”

“And where do I come in?”

“Finnegan’s Wake.  It’s what they call the master ledger, similar to what Bane brought us on Falcone.  Transactions and contacts going back years.  Can take down the whole operation.  Catch is, it’s not at the pub.  As near as I can tell, he keeps it in his house somewhere, probably a safe if that’s not too modern for him,” he said contemptuously.  “We need to find it and scan it so we have the data without his knowing it’s been compromised.  Then I can digitize the data, break it down like any other criminal operation of its size—and end it.”

“Well I could always break in,” Selina said reluctantly, “but hitting a boss’s house is something that’s better done at a social gathering, particularly if there’s searching to be done—which it sounds like if you don’t have the make or location of the safe.  I don’t suppose he’d accommodate us with a party.”

“Something nearly as good,” Bruce said.  “Finn had a large family, four sons.  He has a basement game room, and I guess he’s sentimental.  Likes to see it used, hear voices down there again.  Once a week, the lieutenants and whoever’s in favor are invited over.”

“So it’s a boys’ night.  Nothing in that for me,” she frowned.

“They all happen to be men, but it’s not strippers or anything.  It’s a pool table and an X-Box and Finn’s wife bringing down a plate of sandwiches.  The boys’ night nature of the thing means you’ll be a perfect diversion.  We create a context where Finn wants to meet you, check you out, and tells Matches to bring you over so he can have a look at you.  Once you’re in their midst, no one will be paying much attention to Matches.”

“That could work,” Selina admitted, and Bruce began stroking her leg.

“Being seen with you may be useful for something else,” he said thoughtfully.

 

Barbara was looking down at her notes as she closed the channel with Nightwing, but her mind was on the contents of the kitchen cabinet.  She was out of herbal tea and it was late for more caffeine.  But her notes on Batman’s report were a jumble—Batman’s sitrep conveyed through Matches Malone ranting in character at Nightwing, as interpreted by Dick.  It reminded her of her college notes, having to filter out Professor Gelding’s bias on Baltzell in his lecture of Baltzell’s influence on Cooper and Cooper’s influence on Loewen-Ostrander—ARGH!  From her college days, she always started transcribing notes of this kind by clearing her head with a cup of tea.  All she could do now was opt for hot water and lemon (and feel like Grandma Gordon) or a couple of wake-me-up songs on YouTube.  She went with the latter, Bosshouse and Joseph LoDuca, and dove into the fray...

The Chinatown drug smuggling was a King Snake operation, that should go to Robin by default.  DEMON cell in the White Dragon was still defunct, that required only a note in the file to reset the calendar; it wouldn’t have to be checked for another two weeks…  A job-well-done/follow-up on Operation: Ushanka, apparently the impact on Odessa’s set up washing dirty cash through a nest of investment portfolios was above her estimates… A Two-Face job.  She was to assemble a listing of all bars with a speakeasy theme and cross tag any with Double, Twin or Gemini names, Second Avenue addresses or other Two-Face provocative details.  That was a low priority.  Nightwing didn’t want anything done before she completed a profile for this Russian general behind that B1 arms deal: someone recently retired or nearing retirement, with access to the arsenal and a hidden bank account to hide the proceeds of a sale…

And that’s where things got messy.  Apparently Nightwing was handling a small gun buy in Gotham tonight—checking his location, it seemed like he was on his way to Cherry Street now—but he wanted her to have all the prep work done for him to “gun through all the Bludhaven jobs tomorrow.”  The pun was a dead giveaway: his old Robin insecurities were thoroughly engaged, and Barbara cursed quietly under her breath.  She knew this was going to happen.  No matter how much Dick knew the exchanges with Matches were nothing more than playacting, that Bruce was playing the role of an aggressive and contemptuous thug as he saw it (and thinking only of the information he wanted to convey, not the Gotham versus Bludhaven rhetoric it was wrapped in,) the repetition was going to take its toll.  She knew this was going to happen.  But of course Dick failed to pick up any of her hints, and there was no way to say it explicitly without doing more harm than good. 

Every time Bruce left and Nightwing took over the team, the responsibility weighed on him to some degree.  He wanted Batman to come home to a better Gotham than he’d left.  He wanted to hand over the keys to a shiny clean car with a full tank of gas (and apart from the time Robin and Batgirl burned down the Iceberg, he managed to do just that.)  But this time, Bruce hadn’t really left.  He was still here, in town, to witness how Dick was doing the job, and he was giving an almost nightly critique.  When he unearthed something on Bludhaven, or multiple somethings like he had tonight, Dick took it as something between a challenge and a holy quest.  Bludhaven would not be neglected one angstrom because of Nightwing’s duties in Gotham.  Which was a nice idea but not practical if neither of them were going to sleep tomorrow before resuming Gotham business tomorrow night. 

She sighed.  She would try once.  It wasn’t going to work, but the Code of the Bat meant she had to try anyway.  She opened the channel to Nightwing.

“I have a plan,” she announced brightly.

..::Speak.::.. came the reply, foreboding in its Bat-brevity.

“If the Russian General is something you have to do yourself, then it can’t be helped and everything else gets tabled.  But I can’t imagine anything I’ll dig up before dawn that can’t be turned over to Homeland Security, or at worst the Justice League.”

..::Absolutely not.  I’m not farming out a Bludhaven job just because—::..

“The South Shore smuggling can wait until this Matches thing is over and you’re able to give it your full attention, and the vodka, I still think that was a joke, but if—”

..::Bruce doesn’t joke, Babs, not about stuff like this.::..

“Matches might!  It sounds like something you’d make up to tell a cop, doesn’t it?  I mean c’mon, tanker trucks of grain alcohol dyed to look like Windex?  It sounds like something from an online meme generator.  Dr. Genevieve Lichtenstein is a freckled and reclusive coroner with a fondness for trainspotting.  She doesn't know it yet but she is the only one who can stop a killer when her nephew, Valentino Wishmonger, is kidnapped by vodka smugglers and mangled fingers begin turning up in bottles of window cleaner all over Queens…”

..::Black Escalade turning off the bridge.::..

“There was a time you would have laughed at that, Dickie.”

..::Probably Ellis and Smalls.::..

“It was a week ago.”

..::Yep, turning at the light.  They’re heading for the buy..::..

“But not when you’re channeling the Dark Knight.  Heaven forbid.  Somebody makes a bad joke?  Snarl and change the subject—”

..:: It’s about to go down.  Nightwing out.::..

She sighed, then completed her thought.  “—and then have a good pummel.”

 

In the morning, one look at Matches’s bathtub convinced Selina she could shower later, so she sifted through the corner of the bedroom that passed for a closet and found a button down shirt to wear over her clubbing dress.  Then she sat looking out the window and she waited while Bruce shaved.

“I just don’t understand why you don’t have coffee,” she teased.  “You’re not what I’d call a morning person and neither is Matches.  It forces both of you to go out at this ungodly time of day.”

“Malone is very in-the-moment, doesn’t plan ahead.  He runs out of something like coffee, he keeps forgetting to buy more.”

She grinned and stood as he came out of the bathroom, dabbing the edge of his moustache with Jameson’s Irish Whiskey to mask the smell of the spirit gum. 

“Ready,” she announced, crinkling her nose as she kissed his cheek and then taking the flask from his fingers.  She dabbed her wrist and earlobe with the liquid as if it were perfume and then checked the hallmark once she’d replaced the cap.  “Tiffany,” she noted in a coarse and avaricious voice, handing it back.  “How’d you come across a high ticket piece like this, Malone?”

Bruce smiled his own smile in reply.  “Gina gave it to him,” he said, indicating with the pronoun that he wasn’t ready to get into character.  “There is one other piece of news, before we go out in public,” he said grimly.  “Selina, since you’ve been back, have you stopped at a newsstand?”

“No, I had a terrible flight.  Ear ringing from hell,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck at the memory.  “Raced through the airport.  Why?”

His lip twitched, producing an odd spasm at the corner of the moustache as he said “Well… Remember when you said the Gotham Post would never report on that whole ‘Queen of the Underworld’ mess because it contradicted their East End crimefighter?”

“Y-yeah, that was more than year ago.  Why?” she said warily.

“They’re covering it.”

“It was more than a year ago.”

“They’re covering it now.”

“It was more than a year ago.”

“They’re a little behind.”

“It was—This is just how it happened last time!  I got back from Zurich, you came to the lair, we spent the night with a little ‘welcome home’ and then when we were getting dressed you told me I was the new—I’ve got to stop leaving town.”

“Relax, it’ll be over by the time we’re back from Rio.”

“It was over more than a year—Wait a minute, you read The Gotham Post?”

“I do not read The Gotham Post, but sometimes people I know read it and they walk up and tell me things before I can hit them.”

“I had Oswald finessed.  It was delicate, it was elegant, it was like easing a Rembrandt off those shock sensors at the museum.  Now it’s wrecked?  He’s going to be paranoid, and there’s no telling what that might stir up.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it.  Catwoman is out of town.  Chances are, it will all blow over by the time she gets back.”

She sighed.  “Possibly.  Probably.  But I better pick him up a nice Pre-Columbian bird sculpture or something when we go back to Brazil, just in case.”

“You will do no such thing.”

“You’re welcome to try and stop me,” she announced with a naughty grin.  “I’ll bet a Talisman of Charlemagne that you can’t.”

 

Barbara surveyed her living room, her mouth curled into the bitter twist she associated with her aunts from Boston.  It looked like a dorm room.  Not hers, of course; she’d kept her own dorm neat and tidy.  But Tim’s room at Hudson looked like this, and she suspected Dick’s had as well.  He looked right at home sitting in the middle of the mess, hunched over her research like a senior cramming for finals. 

“It wouldn’t kill you to clean up a little,” she muttered as she gathered the wax paper wrappers, paper napkins and other refuse of the Team Gotham breakfasts that were becoming the norm.  Dick had led the team before and had always been content skimming the logs the way Batman might.  Now he couldn’t wait that long and preferred these informal, in-person debriefings at the end of patrol.  He was too smart to call them that.  He was too smart to make it an order.  He knew the perfect bait to dangle: animal protein and lots of it.  The offer of a hearty breakfast had once again produced thorough reports from both Tim and Cassie on whatever special assignments he’d given in light of Batman’s sitrep. 

“Did you say something?” Dick asked without looking up.

After which, the kids went home to crash and Dick dove headfirst into the research he’d ordered on the Russian arms deal.  Which made it difficult for her to hound him about the clean-up.  It’s not like he was slacking. 

“It can wait,” she grumbled.  It’s not like undercover jobs happened every day. 

 

Though it was Batman’s idea to create Gina O’Malley the grifter behind Selina’s finance cover of Georgina Barnes, though it was his own idea for her and Matches to have a past, he found himself at a loss walking with her into La Crema.  She was so incredibly beautiful, she was so obviously dressed in what she’d gone out in last night, and here she was, sliding into a booth across from him to have breakfast in front of the hipsters and the yups and everybody.  They had a past, Batman reminded him sharply, this was not the first time Matches was seen in public with her—but the note did no good.  The performance was out of his hands as Matches stood a little taller, held his head a little higher, and radiated something closer to confidence than had ever been seen in the affable loser.

Breakfast was spent catching up, which consisted of his asking questions that allowed Selina to flesh out Gina’s character and also briefed him on particulars he should know, given their history.  She was from Danvers, Massachusetts; right outside of Boston.  Her favorite color was red; favorite movie, The Parent Trap; favorite animals, swans and dolphins.  She’d been arrested three times.  Shoplifting at fifteen, makeup from a department store; juvy record sealed.  Protesting the Republican National Convention; that was a convincer for a mark.  And one time in Seattle, her crew was set up by a bent cape who thought he could blackmail them into helping him catch a bank robber.  Bruce had to admire Selina’s way of working her grievances into Gina’s history while making them wholly Gina’s invention.  The only detail where she faltered was a favorite song.  On the surface, it seemed like Gina’s favorite song was too embarrassing to admit, but unless Bruce misread the chain of thoughts playing out in her eyes, the question caught Selina by surprise and she didn’t trust that the first songs she thought of were sufficiently low-brow to match The Parent Trap

It was an understandable lapse, but it would have to be addressed.  Catwoman picked up and discarded cover identities for an afternoon or a day, to case a target or infiltrate a party.  It wasn’t the kind of sustained, immersive cover they’d be attempting with Matches and Gina.  Yet another perk of having her involved in the mission: they could work out the kinks in her process.

He thought about taking her downstairs to the flea market after breakfast and buying her a sentimental trinket after their night together, but she insisted he stick with his usual routine and go through with the class at Bolo while Gina went home to shower.  It presented Bruce with a minor acting dilemma.  He felt sure Matches would be distracted by Gina’s return, to say nothing of her spending the night.  But Batman, whose fighting skills Matches made use of, was too much of a pro to allow the loss of focus.  He couldn’t do it; it created too much of a paradox.  The lack of discipline required to portray Matches accurately would make it impossible for him to have ever acquired the expertise he was demonstrating.  So he compromised the only way he could think to: focusing today’s lesson on Brazilian jujitsu.  To his mind, it permitted an awareness of Gina into the proceedings while grounding the whole thing in the knowledge that she didn’t exist.  That she was, in fact, Selina (who was supposed to be in Rio studying jujitsu with Dias) while Batman (whose focus and discipline was the only reason Matches had the ability to punch block from a hopeless ground position) went undercover.

It worked fine until the fifty minute mark, when he demonstrated how to achieve a sweeping glance at the surroundings without compromising your weight distribution.  His sweeping glance took in red hair and the same shamefully immodest top, which she now wore over tight jeans with a black snakeskin pattern—and then it took in the ceiling as his back hit the mat.  He tapped out, admitted the distraction, and once his student saw her, that leveled the playing field for the last ten minutes of their lesson. 

By the time Matches showered and met her in the lobby, Gina’s top was covered by a funky suede coat which permitted her to blend in as they walked through the neighborhood better than Matches ever had alone.  It confirmed his secondary goal including her in the mission, but before he could explain, he had to endure her unfathomable mirth.

“I don’t believe you’re actually making money teaching thugs how to fight Batman,” she whispered.  “They’re paying you.  Dollars.  Hard-stolen dollars that they worked for.  It was their money and now it’s your money.  For the privilege of being Zogger.”

“They get some legitimate tips,” he murmured. 

“And you get your morning workout.  It’s your best idea since the Batmobile,” she smirked.

“Do you need to do some shopping?” he asked bluntly.  “Daywear, casual, something more appropriate for evening when she’s working a con, underwear.”

Underwear?  Nobody but Matches gets to see my bra and panties, stud.”

“I have a reason for bringing this up,” he said sternly.

“Yes, because the Zogger stand-in landed a punch you weren’t expecting when Matches saw my tits,” she said with satisfaction.

“Because you dressed Georgina Barnes from your own closet, and that was fine when she was a Wharton grad from Darien who worked on Wall Street and shopped at Barney’s.  But Gina has to create the effect of being… whatever her cons demand, without the benefit of Selina Kyle’s platinum card.”

“Malone, you’re wearing a jacket that looks like the unholy union of a kilt and a picnic blanket.  Let me worry about how Gina maintains her wardrobe.  Contrary to what you’ve heard, crime pays very well.  And for the little details that really sell it, there are—”

“Canal Street knockoffs,” Bruce/Matches nodded.

“That too, but I was going to say whatever falls off the truck in front of Cluemaster’s guy Clew.”

“I’d rather it be Canal Street,” he graveled.  “That’s how you wound up at my place last night.  I was in Chinatown yesterday and you spotted me.  You do a lot of business there, but you won’t want that known yet so… shopping for handbags.”

“You’re the boss,” she said—and Matches nearly missed a step as Batman’s warning claxon sounded at three words so wholly out of character.  For a second, he imagined Gina had seen an opening to play up to Matches, puff his ego and strengthen her hold... when he realized it was just Selina teasing Bruce for fun. 

He took her to lunch in Chinatown at the place recommended by the Nigerians the day before.  Curiously, their stall was shut down.  Rather than the police tape that usually sealed the door when a vendor was closed for selling counterfeits, there were only the signature slices of a Robin-sized Batarang.

Plenty of other vendors remained, however, and though Gina stopped to look at some Balenciaga City Bags for a character she was creating, she treated Matches to a new wallet instead, and at the next stall where a Proenza Schouler caught her eye, she got him a spiff case for his phone.

The poker club was next, and though he wore the same loud jacket as the day before, Matches blended in much better with the paradoxically conspicuous Gina draped over him.  At first, Bruce wasn’t sure how to modify Malone’s gambling.  He’d presumably want to impress Gina with larger bets, but the guy lived hand-to-mouth and they knew he was broke yesterday.  Entertaining her had to have put a dent into whatever he’d picked up since Carl and Sasha left him in the alley.  If he didn’t win big on the first race, how could he possibly… He decided to bet light and hope for a long shot, but it turned out to be a non-issue.  Nobody noticed.  At all.  Gina had taken one look at Jiu Mei when they entered and possessively steered him to present the slight Asian girl with his back.  Then she went to the bar to fetch his drink, and to refresh it, and every time she passed the poker table, it wound up a new round of invocations from Carl, Sasha and Vasily.  They wouldn’t have noticed if Matches was betting two dollars or ten-thousand.  The only thought on their minds when they looked at him was HOW?

The rest of the poker table’s conversation generated only two footnotes, but that was just as well.  It was Batgirl’s night to collect his report and she couldn’t pick up as many nuanced details. 

For some reason, Gina wanted to see the Wu-Maroni-Falcone jade at Kangxi Imports before they returned to Hell’s Kitchen, and even if Bruce was as mystified as Matches as to what that reason could be, he accepted that Matches had no choice.  He was firmly tied around Gina’s little finger.  No matter what Mr. Liu thought about him bringing some skirt who was certainly not Catwoman to see his jade, it’s undoubtedly what Matches would do.  He had no more choice than if he’d been greened.  Liu would realize that or he wouldn’t, but it’s the way things were.

Predictably, Gina took no interest in the Fu Lions.  But she did take considerable interest in a statue of two courtesans in imperial dress, a cicada pendant, and an admittedly exquisite collection of miniature musical instruments.  She also looked around the shop like she was scanning it.  She did everything but sniff the shelves.  She asked Liu a number of oddly specific questions, and then she asked for a business card.  By the end of it, Batman—who existed almost as a subroutine at these times cataloging significant factoids, hypotheses and questions to follow up later without disturbing the surface performance of Matches Malone—manifested as a headache about an inch above his right eye. 

He walked in silence for about a block once they left Kangxi Imports, then managed a hoarse gravel.

“What was that?”

“I’ll tell you later,” she laughed. 

 

The melodic tinkle of an alarm went off, and Barbara’s head rolled back as if she were in bed wishing death on the digital clock on her nightstand, not at her desk—still—wishing death on the messenger in her own phone.  She checked the note before dismissing the reminder.  Q-Pap it read, with two little flags next to it that, if you squinted, resembled the tip of a batwing.  It meant the original reminder had been edited twice—once from Nighwing’s communicator and once from Dick’s phone.  Surprise, surprise. 

Twice from Dick’s phone, for a third little batwing-shaped flag popped up while she was reading.  Barbara ground her teeth slightly through a long, staggered breath before opening the single line reminder into a full post-it sized note.  Q-Pap call/pick-up.  Don’t forget the BB.  1/3.  Damnit.  She tapped the screen, flipping to the next post-it.  Check Ellis Smalls ev  2/3.  Damnit.  She tapped again.  Poke R to check Snake. Don’t do it for him.  3/3  The last turned into 3/4 before she could get out the ‘Damnit’ and again she tapped to see the newest missive from His Battiness, the Lord High Taskmaster which read Takeout Decoy 4/4

Barbara growled as she dialed but assumed her usual crisp business-like tone at the sound of the pick-up and that unflappable “Wayne Manor” that had kept its cool through marathons of impositions far worse than this one.  She told Alfred she was coming by to pick up the Q-Pap, since the Grayson household had run out of the generic acetaminophen tablets that the Batcave bought in bulk.  Confirming that it wasn’t an inconvenient time, she gently reminded him that they had also run out of the special flavored butters he made, and that Dick was, in a word, addicted.  Barbara’s pique faded briefly as Alfred said he had a fresh batch of basil butter he’d made only that afternoon.  Through the phone, she could hear the beaming smile of a cook whose work is appreciated, and his obvious joy was contagious for a full ten minutes after she’d hung up.

Irritation returned when she went back to the kitchen and remembered they were also out of herbal tea and down to the last paper towel on the roll.  It seemed like they were running out of everything with the kids coming over each morning, even with Dick bringing in most of the food.   From her Clock Tower days, Barbara hated paying midtown prices to get Whole Foods delivered, but with these Bat-operations running round-the-clock, she didn’t have the time, the energy or the patience to shlepp Fairway bags from Brooklyn.  So she placed the order and, while she waited, she confirmed that Ellis, Smalls and their supplier from the Gotham gun buy had all been arraigned and were on their way to Blackgate.  Their P.D. hadn’t challenged the evidence pack left by Nightwing, and history had shown that if the vigilante card wasn’t played there; it wouldn’t become an issue later at trial. 

A different alarm tweeted, reminding Barbara that she had two loads running down in the laundry room.  When she returned, she found an automatic update had come in before she logged out of the courthouse gateway.  King Snake’s men from the Chinatown smuggling case made bail.  The heroin was impounded, but the two non-Ghost Dragon Nigerian nationals were probably gone for good…  Which Robin was supposed to check and find out for himself.  She considered noting it in the log for spite, but decided to be an adult and make Tim do the follow-up like Dick wanted.  She tapped his internet stream and saw he was online right now, chatting with the with Sub Diego from the look of it.  The Wayne office there had helped him with a school project, but Barbara was pretty sure that was finished months ago.  This was probably social, not school work, so she buzzed in and reminded him to check the status of the men arrested from that Chinatown smuggling job.  She squelched the temptation to tell him this was Dick’s special request so he would stomp a bit in the log when he noted it.  The problem was that Dick wasn’t being unreasonable.  He was being conscientious and responsible, and she couldn’t quite bring herself to be petty and immature in return—no matter how much she wanted to put a wedge of stinky cheese in his utility belt.

Takeout Decoy

Heh.  Maybe she could indulge in just one tiny prank without resorting to vandalism of Bat-equipment.  She texted.

Qpap & basil butter, check. All good on Ellis & Smalls case.  Robin doing KS follow-up now.  Decoy took some doing.  Not many League, Titans or YJs down with wet work, as you know, but Arsenal stepped up.  Said he’ll have Decoy dispatched by noon tomorrow, but it’s on you to clear it with B.  You know how he is about killing.  Xoxo, Babs

“Five,” she mouthed, pushing the send button.  “Four, three, two…”  Her phone rang. 

…:: Babs, what did you do?  Takeout!  I was asking if you wanted to get takeout from Decoy.  You loved the Peking Duck, remember?  I… I just fell for one of your little jokes, didn’t I? ::…

“Well, Dickie, if you weren’t running on two hours sleep, you’d probably know an obvious joke when you see one.  Duck sounds good.  And get some of those pastrami eggrolls, you know how I love them.  Ta.”

 

Gina O’Malley wasn’t the kind of woman who filled a guy’s refrigerator with Greek yogurt, but she did let herself in whenever she felt like it and planted a number of flags that were strangely revealing if you knew how to read them.  Bruce wasn’t sure how Matches would feel about it, but he was fascinated by the study of a fictional criminal like Gina as crafted by a real one like Selina. 

In a way, he began it.  Throwing away the layers of pizza boxes and Chinese takeout cartons on (and under) the living room table, taping the cords and cables that hung from the TV to present a cleaner appearance, hiding the dirty dishes piled in the sink and running the shower until that black stuff was gone from the tub.  Then he went out, and when he returned he found two car magazines and a Derek Storm graphic novel on the now-cleared coffee table, and on the kitchen counter, a four pack from the “craft beer” place down the block.  O’Hara’s Irish Red and Oak-Aged Innis & Gunn.  Beneath Malone’s mustache, Bruce’s lip twitched.  The latter wasn’t Irish, it was just the one beer Selina had seen him order as Bruce, that night at the gastropub when they’d first begun dating publicly and later when they were in London. 

The next surprise was the appearance of four saucepans on the burners on his stove.  Within each, two or three small unglazed teapots soaking in what looked like a pale tea soup.  Bruce recognized them as the prized Yixing pots made from the special clay of the region, but of course Matches would have no idea what they were.  Bruce was as puzzled as to what they might be doing here.  He didn’t have to wonder long, however.  The next time he returned to the apartment, he heard the squeal of a teakettle as he opened the door.

He took a half-beat to center himself so that Batman or Matches could react appropriately to whatever he might find.  He walked down the hall and sure enough, Gina stood in the kitchen pouring hot water over some kind of craft project she had set up with the teapots. 

“You had a rat,” she announced in place of ‘Hello.’ 

He assumed one of Matches stupider expressions in case they weren’t alone, but Selina-or-Gina wasn’t looking.  She’d resumed pouring. 

“Don’t worry though, the kitty took care of it,” she said.  “Did you know you have a cat?”

“Is that a trick question?” he asked, with just a hint of Bat-gravel.

“Not a metaphor.  I came in and right outside that window, there was a chubby black cat on the fire escape with two little feet sticking out of its mouth.”

“Ah,” Bruce said.  “So we’re boiling water to sterilize?”

“No, I’m trying to get a patina on these in less than fifty years (not the textbook way of doing it,) without any help from Felix Faust—a process that involves making a ludicrous amount of tea, without any help from Alfred.”

“Also not the textbook way of doing it,” Bruce chuckled, now that he was sure they were alone and out of character. 

He asked if it was prep work for a con, and she nodded.  Then he picked up the smallest and plainest of the pots.  “This brings back memories,” he said, tipping it over casually to read the maker’s mark on the bottom.  He started telling her trivia about the clay’s special ability to conduct heat, making it ideal for brewing tea, but something about the way she was listening—that little smile she had when she listened which reminded him of their earliest dates—he found himself drifting into more personal stories about the kwoon in Foshan, and the one in Hong Kong.  Then he stopped, stammered, and nearly blushed.

“Let’s pretend Matches was talking your ear off about a big score in Metropolis all this time,” he said, and she laughed.  “It’s not funny.  It’s one thing to break character when we’re alone.  It’s another to spend an hour talking about places he’s never been, things he wouldn’t know and wouldn’t understand if you drew him a picture an—mmmph.”

Selina cut him off with a wet kiss and suggested an alternate way they could have spent the last hour that wouldn’t require Matches talking at all. 

The rest of the day was quite pleasant, settled in front of the TV, conducting their individual research on a phone and tablet respectively, with Selina popping up every so often to subject another teapot to a dousing of water or tea.  Again, Bruce wondered how Matches felt about Gina using his place as a workshop to manufacture props for her cons.  At that moment, having helped herself to one of the Innis & Gunns, she took a swig from the bottle—and Matches informed Bruce that he found it very sexy.

An opinion he reiterated later when she was barefoot, legs stretched out on the sofa, and grunting rhythmically as she worked on her laptop.  Bruce merely raised an eyebrow, watching over the top of Malone’s glasses, until she clutched her head with both hands as if trying to keep it from exploding.

“Wifi on the blink again?” he guessed.  It was the aspect of apartment living that he found the most trying.  He could understand how those not born with the advantages he took for granted managed to live quite happily without butlers and Ferraris.  He could not fathom how they put up with an Internet connection that slowed or stopped whenever it felt like it. 

“No,” she moaned.  “It’s more like what you were saying earlier.  I’m basically trying to dumb down what I know about Chinese porcelain so Gina can come off like an expert, but keep it the level of ‘expertise’ she could pick up from eBay rather than two years at the Sorbonne.”

“Ah.  Sounds like my first year on the board of the Asian Arts Museum, pretending I knew all the minutia about Dragon and Phoenix motifs from a half-remembered lecture at Princeton instead of a DEMON compound in Guangdong,” he said.

“Arrrghhh,” she cried, repeating the head-clutch move.  “Half-remembered is the other half of the problem.  I’m a terrible person, I didn’t like Chinese stuff very much back then.  I liked Japanese; I paid loads of attention there.  But China just settled into this one big, sloshy, famile rose-famile verde-cobalt-imari mess.”

“Well, I suppose Gina’s cons could involve Japanese ceramics,” Bruce offered, but Selina shook her head.

“No, China is better.  Finn doesn’t have an issue with the Yakuza and Gina didn’t find you because you were hanging out in Little Tokyo.  Besides, Japan is a little too accessible.  It’s too easy to hit on somebody that knows what they’re talking about, and then you’re screwed.  But China?  People hear Ming Dynasty and it’s like saying Gucci or Prada.  They don’t know Wanli or Chenghua or anything, but they know a brand—Ming—and that’s what they have to have.”

“We’re talking about the Amherst Collection,” he graveled.

“They think anything with that label is worth millions.”

“You were going to hit it anyway, for the Han Dynasty lion head vessel.  That’s why I was there.  That’s why I was waiting.  I had no idea that a social climbing nobody in Toronto commissioned a couple of—”

“Turned up his nose at the exquisite—and frankly huge—Song Dynasty vase I brought him at great inconvenience—”

“It barely grazed you.”

And the wine stem!”

“I’ve seen your bare hip; there isn’t a hint of a scar.”

“Both 12th Century, rare black and white cizhou, and you go tossing batarangs like it’s Frisbee golf—”

“Or like it was felony burglary—”

“So this nimrod in Toronto—”

“Trespass with intent, assault on the security guard, theft of cultural property—”

“Sticks his nose up at the exquisite Song cizhou I brought him so he’d have something that was actually from China, and insists on the pieces he sent me for—”

“He’d commissioned a theft, there was no obligation to tell him—”

“A ‘Ming doucai bowl’ that was a 19th Century Japanese knockoff—”

“Everything that happened that second night was your doing.”

“And a ‘Ming blanc de chine’ that’s really an Etruscan piss pot.”

They broke off together, slightly winded, and after a moment’s consideration, Matches and Gina touched the top of their beer bottles in a shared revelation that the costumed types like Batman and Catwoman were incomprehensibly weird.

 

The final arrivals that Matches came home to find were a collection of blue-and-white bowls of varying sizes and ages.  There they sat, deposited on his coffee table in his absence.  Of course he saw only “more of that Chinese junk Gina’s been fussing with,” while Bruce saw a near pair of 18th Century Cobalt Phoenix Bowls, a bamboo motif of the same period with everted rims and unglazed feet, and a Ming period Swatow ware bowl with an irregular leaf pattern… and a paper label fastened onto the side with yellowed tape reading National Museum of the Philippines, Manila.

He scowled.  Psychobat reminded him that Selina brought a stolen cat when she moved into the manor knowing he was Batman.  Of course Gina wouldn’t give it a second thought with Malone knowing he was a crook.  Neither one of them drew those divisions between home and work—he himself had a bag of counterfeit batarangs in his sock drawer—and neither saw the risks letting the trappings of a criminal life invade their living space.  Unless…

Unless Gina did see the risk and that’s why she was using Malone’s place instead of her own.  He thought hard, trying to decide if there was any possible way Matches might realize Gina was using him.  She could be hiding out; she could be on the run, people like her usually were.  Malone should know that, he was the same.  How could he think a woman like that would just come waltzing back into his life without a reason? 

At that moment, the door opened and Gina came in with a shopping bag and a big smile, bustling with her usual excitement and energy.  It was, Bruce decided, perfect timing: an ideal confluence to break through Malone’s stupidity and make him ask the hard questions. 

“Are these from the Chinese Room?” he asked, something in his head substituting Batman’s opening for Malone’s but overshooting in an effort to keep the gravel out of his voice, resulting in the slightly inebriated playboy voice he only used leaving the country club.

Selina first reacted with surprise, the confused kitten head tilt as she set down her bags.  Then came the naughty grin, and finally, a warmer loving one.

“How are you holding up, Dark Knight?”

“So, not from the Chinese Room,” he grunted.

“Of course not.  I haven’t been home since picking up the wig that first day.  Now, I know the World’s Greatest Detective can read and there’s no chance that you—”

“You’re not as good at evading questions as you used to be, Catwoman.  Where did you get these pieces?”

“Bruce, not counting ‘boxing lessons,’ how long has it been since you’ve had a good pummel?” she said as if answering his question rather than posing a different one.

“If there was nothing wrong with their provenance, you would have just told me instead of going through this whole—”

“No,” she cut him off, softly insistent.  He knew the look from the dozen chases when he landed on a rooftop just as she made the other side of it.  He’d call out for her to stop and, unlike any other criminal he faced, she would if she felt like it.  When she did, her hip cocked just so, like it was now.  She’d turn to give him an eyeful of that profile, and then move towards him, not with menace but with an assured confidence that was mesmerizing.  Well, now you’ve got me, Dark Knight. What are you going to do with me?

She gestured for him to take off the glasses and looked up into his eyes, the same angle and the same head tilt with which she so often confronted Batman. 

“I could tell you,” she said softly.  “I might later.  But not when you’re losing your mind from… call it ‘cape withdrawal’ and I’m the only criminal you have to play with.  Bruce, what do you expect me to say when you’re looking down at a label the size of your thumb with the name of a museum on it, pretending not to see it and asking in that Bristol Country Club voice if it’s from the Chinese Room?”

“…”

“I’m going to ask again.  How are you holding up?  And I don’t want a Bruce answer, I want (God help me) to hear from Psychobat.”

“I badly want to hit something,” he snarled.

She handed him a pot. 

“Here, go crazy.  The four of them together aren’t worth more than a hundred and fifty.”

He scowled.

 

It was a quiet night in.  Selina had discovered a vendor on eBay liquidating the huge estate of an Asian art collector, with dozens of auctions ending a few minutes apart.  She said it was a crash course for Gina to learn what such items would actually sell for, and her reactions and comments as she watched were like the regulars at a sports bar watching a ballgame. 

“That big dragon vase went for three hundred,” she’d announce.  And then “What’d I tell you, that yellow Wanli Ming went for three thousand.  That ugly Meiping Lotus a little over eight hundred, and that precious little jar, couldn’t get one fifty.”

He grunted, pretending to know what she was talking about, and tinkered with a ‘nano drone’ Matches had bought that morning at the flea market.  A little under two inches square, battery powered, with a six-axis flight control system, it was just the kind of gadget that might appeal to him, but Bruce was thinking the of the eight minutes flight time on a thirty minute charge.  With a control distance up to fifty meters, it would only take a few enhancements to make it an effective data-delivery system for those nights when a back alley confrontation with Nightwing wasn’t a convenient way to log a sitrep. 

For now, he mastered hovering over the remains of their takeout dinner, and then on an impish impulse, started circling Gina’s shoulder to annoy her…  Then reality closed in front of him like a fist.

“Selina, this isn’t going to work,” he said.

She turned, knowing an explanation would come without prompting, so she merely regarded the drone and breathed. 

“It’s too comfortable, too ‘homey,’” he went on.  “Matches would lose his mind.  He’d try to capture it, make it his, make it permanent, tie you down.  Scare the hell out of you, scare you off.  He’d wreck it.”

“Tonight?” she asked calmly.

“Maybe.  If not, it’s a ticking bomb.  This seriously jeopardizes what we’re trying to do.  If I’m not ‘true’ to the character, then wherever it leads won’t hold up over time.  It just won’t.”

“Now wait a minute, Matches isn’t a complete idiot. He knows he can’t trust her, right?”

“Knowing isn’t all that much of a factor when you’re looking at those legs,” he said, more to himself than to her.  “Those lips, those eyes.  Not being an idiot is no help either, trust me on this.”

“Fuck you,” she said, and only then did Bruce realize he hadn’t just dipped into the gravel at the end but into the scowl and stoic monotone in which he’d always rebuffed her advances, ignored her hints, and shut down all those conversations he desperately wanted to continue.

“Kitten—”

“Don’t you ‘kitten’ me,” she spat.  “Psychobat lost, and he’s a shitty loser and now he’s trying to take it out on Matches and Gina.  Fuck you.”

“Why is it ‘him’ up to the ‘fuck you’ and then… Never mind, it’s no longer a perfect moment Matches will want to hold on to.  Crisis averted, well done.”

“Go me,” she said sourly.  They both went back to their projects for a half-minute, when Selina looked up.  “Is this how normal people fight?  It’s not satisfying.”

“Do you want to get out of here?  Go down to Mallory’s for a beer?” Bruce suggested, having no basis to judge the normalcy of the fight but agreeing that it was far from satisfying.

Selina-Gina agreed with a girlish grin, and Bruce-Matches decided the time was right to debut the new overcoat.  They stopped at the ATM on the way, and as Matches took the stack of new bills to add to his roll, he felt the most delightful disturbance in the space around him. 

“Move,” an ugly voice rasped.  “Cash first, then the wa—”

Presumably, the mugger was about to specify Malone’s watch be handed over next, to be followed by “Red’s jewelry.”  The threat “I’ll shoot your ass” may also have been at the forefront of his consciousness, for these were the syllables spewed in a random order with each new blow Matches landed on his ribs, side, throat, jaw, and thorax.

“Now that’s satisfying,” Matches declared, stepping over the whimpering ball of would-be mugger. 

“Thank you,” Gina mouthed to the unconscious form as she followed, walking around him with a dainty step.

 

Gina O’Malley. The kind of dame that made a man forget he knew better. Maybe it was the red hair. Maybe it was the legs that went all the way down to floor. Probably it was the parts in between. Whatever it was, it had me the minute that second strappy sandal hit the floor. Sure I had questions, but before I could ask the first, she’d answered it and short circuited whatever I was going to say next. Before I even knew what she wanted, I was rethinking my lifestyle to make a place for her. Poured her a drink and told her everything I’d been up to with the Westies before she’d drained the glass.

We got caught up over breakfast. Always had her pegged as the kind who would lie about her favorite song, but like I said, Gina had something around her. Call it a whiff of Dahlia Noir, some eau de dame by Givenchy that makes the proximity of nutella crepes and pumpkin iced coffee tolerable. Or maybe it’s that the Givenchy was put on at least twelve hours ago and mixed with a touch of Jameson’s from my moustache. Who really cares about a favorite song?

Yeah, Gina O’Malley was Trouble on Two Legs, but it never seemed to matter when they were standing there in front of you. What mattered is she’s the sort of broad who can make a guy see things in a new way. First day she’s in the neighborhood, I realized the juice bar (well, snack bar) at Bolo was the kind of place a guy like me could use for an office if he didn’t have the clout to use Mallory or Finn’s—not that I had any ambitions to be a big shot or anything. I just realized it was the right kind of place for a certain kind of guy to take a meeting. For an office with storage, there was some industrial space for rent by the river. Might be worth looking into with Gina moving her Chinese doodads into my place…

To be continued...


Chapter

 

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