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

The Neighborhood
by Chris Dee

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Cat-Tales: The Neighborhood - Chapter 4: Finnegan's WakeFinnegan's Wake


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Maewyn Finn sat behind his desk, looking less like a mob boss than any Batman had faced.  His hair, well-receded to a half-moon that began at his ears, had nearly completed the transition from grey to fully white.  What remained was still thick, as was the immaculate white beard and the moustache yellowed from whisky and tobacco.  His wrinkled features were a fair, healthy pink, except at the cheekbones and the edge of his wide nose where they reddened with windburn to give him a Kris Kringle appearance—an effect that was enhanced by dark eyes that shone with keen intelligence.

That intellect posed a serious threat, but it wasn’t foremost in Batman’s mind at the moment.  The gun barrel held to Matches Malone’s temple was the only immediate Alpha.  It would take four to eight seconds to resolve, after which disarming Liam would be the primary; tracking the gun Finn kept in his desk, the secondary.  The Beta—winning over Maewyn Finn—might begin with his next words, though the only objective was resolving the Alpha Threat.

“I give you my word, Mr. Finn, I would be the last man to violate your rule about drugs in the neighborhood,” Matches said in a voice that bespoke a strength and will seldom found in the thugs of Hell’s Kitchen. 

“A fella your age gives his word, I expect him ta be lookin’ me in the eye when he does it,” Finn said evenly.  Matches did no more than stretch out his fingers slightly to indicate that he wasn’t about to lift his hand to his glasses, or make any other type of move, while Liam’s gun was pointed at his head.  Finn nodded, and Liam took a half-step back, keeping the gun on Matches but lowering the line mid-chest.  A lightning pivot wrapped Malone’s left hand around the barrel from below, pointing it to the ceiling while his right came down on Liam’s pronator quadrus, sending a sizzling pain to open up the finger, and dropping him with a blow to the lumbar only after the weight of the gun shifted to Matches’s hand.

He pointed the revolver at Finn but saw the old man’s eyes flick downward, not to the barrel but beyond it to the trigger where Malone’s finger wasn’t.  The eyes twinkled then as they shifted up at Matches as if to say ‘Now that we both know you’ve no intention of shooting anything, why not take the bullets and give the tosser his gun back.’  What Finn actually said was:

“Now where’d you learn a bloody move like that?  The bloody Secret Service?”

“In Chinatown,” Matches said, stalling while Batman decided which openly taught martial art came the closest to the biomechanic exploit he’d used, which had, in fact, come from Secret Service hand-to-hand training.  “But not from any of them damn triads.  Was one of them Russians that hangs out down there, something they call Systema.”

The eyes brightened at that, less the paternal twinkle and more a savory, private satisfaction.  He didn’t approve of Russians; their brutality had damaged his operation and forced an early retirement.  But the idea of their undoubtedly effective methods in the hands of one of his own, that was a spark worth blowing on.

“Malone,” he pronounced sagely.  “That’s what the English made of Ó Maoil Eoin, ‘descendent of a disciple of Saint John.’  You were about to give me your word on a very serious charge.  And I don’t know you, so I don’t know what that’s worth.  Tell me, Matches Malone, are you a disciple of Saint John?”

“No, sir,” Matches said, removing the last of the bullets from Liam’s .44 in a slow, deliberate rhythm before closing the cylinder and then placing it respectfully on the desk.  “But I’m a man of honor, and I give you my word that I bought no drugs in Chinatown, or anywhere else, and I brought no drugs into the Kitchen, from Chinatown or anywhere else.”

“The first part’s good,” Finn said grudgingly.  “A ‘man of honor’ shouldn’t claim a religious upbringing that isn’t his.  Tell me this, though…”  He reached to his desk, and Batman prepared to react in case the gun came out.  Instead, it was four bills that were withdrawn.  Finn lined them up neatly on the desktop blotter before continuing.

“This is Liam’s mark,” he said, pointing.  “And this here is the mark of a triad.  On each one of these,” he said, stabbing at each of the last three bills with a gnarled, accusing finger.  “Now what I want to know is how triad money made off that poison got mixed in with my cut.  Liam says these found their way into his pocket from you.”

Matches shot Liam a nasty look as the disgraced underling picked himself off the floor.  He could see it all: Called into the office after handing in his take.  Questioned about a mark on a handful of bills, something he should have noticed himself when he was counting and marking them.  Panicking.  Thinking of the tension with Mitch, thinking he’d been set up—and then, with the rat cunning of thugs, remembering those bets on a basketball game.  All the time Matches was spending in Chinatown, all the money he was spending period.  It was plausible.  It didn’t have to be true, it just had to be plausible. 

Unless, of course, things took a little turn and Matches survived the confrontation long enough and with enough credibility to get some payback.

“Yeah, well, we did pass the time betting on the game the other night,” Matches said, confirming enough of Liam’s story to save his life and hoping the son of a bitch appreciated it.  “Basketball’s really not my game.  And a lot of my cash is coming out of Chinatown these days.  It’s a triad-run club where I gamble.  Horses and poker, you know how it is.  So, yeah, there could be any kind of marks on there, I guess.”

Finn grunted. 

“And that’s how you come to know these Russians?” he asked skeptically.

“That’s right.  They have a poker game.  I started going for the ponies, and when I have a good day, I’ll sit down at their table for a bit.”

“Not the wisest way to be spendin’ your time,” Finn noted like he was disappointed in the younger man’s decisions but accepted long ago that the young are stupid and you have to let them make their own mistakes. 

He looked at Matches for a long minute, rubbing his chin through the beard, and then nodded.

“Alright, Mr. Matches Malone.  I’m inclined to take your word as a man of honor—assuming we take a little stroll down to yer place and don’t find anything amiss.”

 

Selina was enjoying her night off to the extent that it was possible to enjoy being bored.  Her costume withdrawal had taken longer than Bruce’s to set in, but now that it was here, it was more acute.  She longed to be Catwoman again, and if she couldn’t, she longed to be bad.  Not Gina-bad but Catwoman-bad.  Her natural feline bad girl.  She was sick pantomiming the edges of a con that was never going to happen.  She wanted to break into a penthouse, steal a cat prize, and then outrun-outfight-outwit Batman to make her escape.  That would feel so good

As it was, the best she could do was letting the fire escape cat into Matches’s apartment while she played with her new bauble.  The gold plated necklace was a leopard, after all, the first bit of cat-kitsch she’d enjoyed since becoming Gina.  And even if it was legally purchased, it was less than four dollars.  Might as well have been stolen.  Have the Z whip up a storefront for that smell of money and high overhead, sit it in a nice display case or a velvet box and you could easily sell it for three-to-five hundred…   Aeiou. 

“Or I could let you have it,” she teased, dangling the thick chain above the cat’s nose and letting it just brush against his whiskers until he nipped and pawed and was happy. 

She sighed.  It didn’t take much to make a cat happy, so when the fur ball had his fill, she tossed the necklace onto the table.  Selling the four dollar Canal Street leopard for three-to-five hundred to marks who thought it was worth six, it was goddamn Gina thinking.  She was impatient to go home, flush the damn cons from her head and get back to being a normal cat burglar. 

Symbolically, she removed Gina’s wig.  It hadn’t been fitting right since she took off her sweater.  Something was wrong with Matches’s radiator and the apartment was miserably warm when she arrived, so she’d changed into one of his t-shirts. 

The room was comfortable enough now, so she’d made tea instead of raiding the stash of craft beers… and wondered if Alfred would be put out if she brought one of the little yixing pots back to the manor and announced that (gasp) she wanted to make her own Lapsang Souchong once in a while, or maybe even an Old Tree Yunnan.

As if in answer to this heresy, a warning tone sounded from her earring.  One of the watches given to the Westies had just entered the elevator—HELL!  Selina bolted up, scaring the cat as she reached to the right to collect her sweater from the back of the couch, left to get the wig which she pinned under her chin while she collected the leopard necklace, a nail file and her teacup from the coffee table, sweeping all three—tea included—into her purse.  “You, get out,” she told the cat, hopping in a back-and-forth motion towards the window while adjusting in her shoes, which she’d half-kicked off.  In a fluid move, she opened the window, tossed out her purse, the sweater and wig, then reached back for the cat, who hissed.  She hissed back, reaching outside and retrieving the sweater.  Using it to protect her arms, she picked him up in a hopeless bundle and carried him out with minutes to spare!

Until she realized she’d left the lights on and the little teapot was on the kitchen counter, and her coat was still hanging inside the door.  She cursed, climbed back in the window and darted to the door, grabbing her coat and hitting the light switch as the sound of a key began jangling in the lock.  She raced back out and closed the window as the door began to open...

 

Finn didn’t exhibit anything as discernible as a raised eyebrow at the narrow hall that stretched before them when the door opened, but he did note it with suspicion.  He didn’t care about the peculiarly modern table or the framed picture hung above it, hinting that actual thought had been put into the surroundings.  He didn’t care about the tiny shelves a little farther down, next to a mirror hung over a second table that all seemed a little too un-cluttered, un-grungy and well-chosen for the space to fit the image Malone presented in the pub.  What Finn cared about was the hall itself, and its twins in dozens of similar tenements throughout the Kitchen that had, generation after generation, concealed the presence of a hitter waiting in the room ahead.

He sent Liam in first with a silent head-tilt that reminded Bruce of Ra’s al Ghul ordering Ubu around.  When they followed, Finn pointed contemptuously to the mirror as he passed. 

“You should move that,” he growled.  “You put it here to make the room look bigger when you’re sitting on the sofa.  What good is that?  Put it on the corner at the end of the hall and you can see inside when you come in the door.”

Matches thanked him for the tip while Liam pawed the car magazines on the coffee table before looking behind the television and speakers as if searching for a stash.  Finn looked too but without touching, as if he was getting a sense of the place by osmosis.  Fiercely penetrating eyes scanned what was left in the open for anyone to see, as if it was unnecessary and undignified to open cabinets and peer into drawers…  There was the line of whisky bottles—Paddy, Redbreast, Powers—displayed without pretense, which drew his attention to the kitchen counter… where his eyes narrowed as they fell on the small brown teapot with Chinese writing on the side.

“What’s this now?” he asked in the same tone he’d pointed out the triad marks on his cash.

Matches said it belonged to Gina, “one of her miniature teapots made from magic dirt.”  Liam reminded Finn that she was the girl who asked to use the back of the pub for that gift room.  Finn nodded and grunted, and Liam confirmed that she “was into a lot of that Chinese stuff.”

Finn didn’t like the sound of that.  He picked up the teapot and looked inside, sniffed it and poked the soggy leaves with his finger.  It obviously hadn’t been used recently to do anything but make tea, but it certainly could be used for smuggling drugs, or a number of other things.  He decided he wanted to see more before making up his mind, and Liam told him that Malone had a storage unit by the river. 

Matches looked less-than-thrilled with the idea, but he didn’t try to weasel out with bad excuses.  That brought an approving sniff from Finn.  He knew there could be a dozen reasons why a man didn’t want bosses poking around his office.  Most of them came down to ambition, and a little fire in the belly wasn’t a bad thing.  The important thing was that Malone was respectful on the walk to the industrial unit.  It was only taking out his key that he muttered a little, and that was justified the way Liam was crowding him.  When Matches unlocked the door, Liam went so far as to get out his gun again until Malone switched on the light… revealing nothing but what they expected: the inside of a large industrial storage unit. 

Malone had set up a large, sturdy desk in the center of the cavernous space.  Beside it was a metal briefcase; on top, a battered laptop and a cardboard box filled with porcelain rice bowls.  There were a few similar boxes on rusty metal shelves, but for the most part, the space was empty.

Finn’s inspection began with the boxes but he quickly lost interest in the jumble sale pottery, bronzes and jade.  He wanted to see inside the desk and then inside the briefcase.  The contents of the desk drawers explained a lot about the apartment.  Malone had clearly moved his skin magazines, racing forms, lowbrow swag and tchotchkes in order to appear more refined and cosmopolitan for Gina…  It was also where he read up on the upcoming races, judging by the stack of old newspapers opened to horse and greyhound results…  That left only the briefcase.  Matches claimed he didn’t have the key, and Finn told him to pick the lock or they’d blast it open.  It took him almost five minutes to get the lock open, five minutes that Liam spent fidgeting and Finn spent studying Matches.  For the first time, the younger man was scared. 

“Only two possibilities here, boyo,” he said, measuring each word with ominous gravitas.  “Either that’s your case—sittin’ here in your office, sittin’ beside your desk that’s a reasonable assumption—and you’re pretendin’ in very stupid fashion not to have the key.  Or else you really don’t have the key because it’s not your case, and you’re scared because you got no idea what’s in there.  Also very stupid, lettin’ some pretty little miss get you involved in that filthy business with the triads when you don’t even know what’s goin’ on.”

At that moment, there was a loud click as the lock gave, and the top of the briefcase opened to reveal, not drugs, not cash, but…

“The hell is that?” Liam asked as Finn peered at a trio of document tubes resting on top of a stuffed manila folder. 

Finn picked up one tubes with cautious curiosity, as if it might contain explosives but probably didn’t, and opened it to reveal a detailed set of blueprints.

“Building plans,” Finn declared, spreading them out on the desk.  “Main retail area, cinema complex, bar and restaurant.  What’s this say here,” there was a pause while he pulled out a pair of wire rimmed glasses and then read out “East End Car Park.”

“The boys did say she’s mentioned the East End a couple of times,” Liam said generously. 

“Cause of all of the development,” Matches added.  “Construction big shots are her favorite marks.  Says those guys are swimming in cash and very easy to sell.”

A sly smile jostled the moustache above Maewyn Finn’s lip, though it didn’t quite reach to his shrewd, still-wary eyes.

“Does she now?” he said though a sharp inhale.  “She finds those cagey bastards easy to handle?  That’s a bit hard to swallow.  Stubborn as mules, what I’ve seen of them.”

The remaining contents of the briefcase seemed to confirm the claim, however.  The folder was full of printouts: lists of general contractors, plumbers, electricians and so on… and intriguingly, a list of East End banks.  Three were highlighted in yellow, with a business card from one of the branch managers attached with a paperclip.  On the back side of the card, ink notes in a sloppy scrawl indicated a holding account had been opened to pay “construction staff, etc”—the et cetera underlined twice—First deposit: $3 million. 

There was also a Polaroid labeled in a more graceful, feminine hand: Grayson Wingate.  Not much could be made out of the man in the picture, other than his standing outside the entrance to an upscale building wearing an expensive suit, tinted glasses and a cast on his right arm. 

Powering up the laptop, a quick Google search informed them that Grayson Wingate was the man behind Ultra Gate Properties, WG Development Group, Gotham Boutique Real Estate, and most recently, Wingate East End.  The websites for these were light on content, heavy on slideshows of Gotham properties which only an insider might recognize as Z-renovations of Falcone fronts that had been rethemed during the Rogue war and restored to functional businesses at the behest of NMK Inc.  The only thing they found on Grayson Wingate himself was a blurb on a gossip site that he’d broken his arm skiing in Aspen.

Finn appeared to think, but he’d already decided how to proceed.  He informed Matches coolly that he wouldn’t be going home tonight.  He’d be returning to the pub, where he would sit under Finn’s watchful eye until Mitch caught up with Gina tomorrow and followed her.

“If everything he sees fits what I’ve seen here, then me and your little miss are going to have a talk.  But if I get the idea that someone’s trying to paint me a picture, that’s not going to be so good for either of you.”

 

Except when Catwoman was involved, Batman preferred contact with adversaries to remain adversarial.  He had limited patience with the ‘Aren’t We Civilized’ routine favored by the Ra’s al Ghuls of the world, that smarmy ‘just because we’re on opposite sides there’s no need to be hostile’ attitude that presumed a level of familiarity he rarely granted to allies.  The hours spent with Finn, however, had none of that galling pretention they might have in the company of Ra’s or Luthor.  Though Finn was clearly suspicious of Matches and masking it with a lot of chitchat that was meant to be disarming, it didn’t make Batman long to hit him hard and repeatedly.  It took forty-five minutes to determine that Finn would not be led into any subjects that might be useful.  Though Matches had offered several episodes from his criminal past that might have drawn out a different type of crook, they brought nothing but wry smiles from Finn—and the eventual suggestion that, since it was almost dawn, they might relocate to the bar and brew up some coffee.

Accepting the situation, Matches backed off and let Finn set the topic.  Finn remarked on the car magazines and asked if Matches knew much about what went on under the hood or “just liked sitting back and dreaming.”  The next hours were spent on the finer points of brakes and suspensions, rebuilding an oversteering muscle car to corner like those lighter, agile ricers… Matches did try at that point to reintroduce crime-related topics by way of the Batmobile: the goal of any right-thinking enthusiast was to find a vehicle that could outrun that ultimate car, but he wasn’t terribly disappointed when the ploy failed.  Finn saw no point getting into an arms race he couldn’t win with fancy boy pishers. 

“You can’t outspend capes, boyo, and you can’t outspend cops.  And what do they get for their money?  The slow and the crazies, only ones they ever get for the actual crime.  Look, we all do our time in the trenches, and it’s a man’s job to get away from whatever they throw at you.  I did it in my day, Datsun 510 and what I got right here,” he said, tapping his temple.  “You boys today taking on this Batmobile, you use the same thing: gray matter right here.  More important than rubber on the road.  You don’t get away, there’s nothing anybody can do for you.  But you get your arse back home without leaving a fingerprint, go around thinking you’re home free.  That’s when they really get you.  You know how?  Taxes.  They never get anybody worth getting on the crime.  It’s all about getting past those tax men that got Capone.”

Matches was silent for a moment, letting the idea sink in.  Then he asked, with genuine curiosity, why Finn knew so much about cars.

Finn said because they were sexy, and then he laughed at Malone’s stupefied reaction, saying he was young once.  Like Liam snapping that cylinder on his .44—and Mitch was almost as bad racking the slide on his automatic, wasting bullets in order to look cool—Finn was once a young man doing stupid things he saw in the movies.  Car chases, car stunts… The odd conversation segued into great movie cars, races and chases.

“The M4S,” he pronounced the way others spoke of Superman.  “Would have put Chrysler on the map if it ever went into production.  Zero to sixty in just over four seconds, nearly two hundred mph out of a 2.2L four cylinder.  In 1985, that was nothing to laugh at,” Finn declared—when Mitch entered, the younger man’s mouth twisted into a pained grimace as he overheard the final words.

“The Wraith,” he said with the smirk of a favored son who gets to poke at his father’s pet opinions.  Then he turned to Matches and said “Don’t try telling him about The Fast and the Furious if he gets going about ‘great car scenes.’”

Finn shook his head at the younger generation’s lack of discernment, but rather than renew the old argument, he sat back, stretching out his legs under the table and eyed both men shrewdly.  The remark was inclusive…  Don’t try telling him about The Fast and the Furious… That’s not how you talk to a man you’re expecting to get whacked by the end of the day.  Mitch was back from following Gina O’Malley.  If he’d seen anything suspicious...  Finn still had to hear the details himself, Mitch was in no position to judge what might be important, but the unconscious vote of confidence was revealing.  Though he’d originally intended to send Matches into the other room while he heard Mitch’s report in private, Finn decided to let him stay.

“Well, the traffic in that neighborhood is as bad as you said,” Mitch began, addressing Finn and Matches equally.  “I never did find her building, but I caught up with her at the breakfast place, that Café Zoophilly, right where you said she’d be.  She was sporting that snooty Wall Street look, not the usual Friday Night Gina.  I followed her to a storefront in NoHo that looked like a campaign headquarters for some pissant local council seat.  She was only in there a few minutes when this dark Town Car pulls up.  She comes out talking on her phone and juggling papers like she works there.  Chauffeur gets out, opens the door, she gets in.”

“Describe this chauffeur.  Did he look like muscle?  Bodyguard?”

Mitch shook his head. 

“Just a driver.  Young kid, white, weedy, didn’t look like he was packing.  Followed the car to Chinatown.  She gets out with this guy…”  He pulled out his phone and handed it over, displaying a picture of Dick in a brash but expensive suit, with his arm in a cast.  Only the edge of the teenage driver’s arm could be seen on the car door, and a blur of Gina’s red hair disappeared off the edge of the frame.

“Wingate,” Finn graveled.  “That’s her mark, Grayson Wingate.  What’s this place they’re going into?”

Mitch showed him how to page to the next photo: taken through the window and a blur of out-of-focus jade and cloisonné displayed in the foreground to focus on Gina and Wingate inside a store, with a slight Asian girl waiting on them.  Finn scrutinized the image as Mitch narrated.

“Tiger Chi Curios.  All kinds of Chinese shit, bowls and vases and stuff.  Girl inside waiting on them, but it looked like Gina was telling him what to buy.  Guy pays in cash, leaves with a bowl.  They get back in the car, and he drops her midtown at one of the big hotels.  She did some shopping, went into a bank, got a slice for lunch and went into Matches’s place.  Far as I know, she’s still there.  I went back to the tiger place.”

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a tiny blue and white bowl, half the size of a western teacup, while Finn continued to page through the pictures on his phone.  He came to a close-up of the Chinese shop girl looking savagely at the camera.

“No more than sixteen,” Finn guessed while Mitch set the tea bowl on the table in front of him.  “And not too happy about you taking her picture.”

“Yeah, thought for a minute she was going to break my arm.  Was definitely going to break my phone.  That’s why I had to buy something.  They’re definitely fronting something.”

Finn picked up the bowl thoughtfully, flipped it over absently, and noted a small sticker on the bottom labeling it from the Cau Mau shipwreck. 

“Whatever it is, doesn’t look like your little lady’s Chinese have anything to do with drugs,” he murmured.  But it had something to do with real estate and construction, those men he was having trouble running as neatly as Falcone had.  They’d played ball with Carmine, but they were cut from the same cloth—as was Finn himself.  They didn’t bow and scrape as easily as other men.  If this O’Malley had a way with them, if they could be maneuvered into situations where he had some dirt on them…

 

On the walk home, Bruce wrestled with Matches’s reaction to the events of the day.  Gina had always been trouble.  Always.  He knew that.  He never had the sense to do anything about it, but he knew.  Now he’d come through an ordeal—an ordeal—gun against his head, twitchy hunted Liam’s monster .44—twitchy hunted overcompensating Liam and his monster overcompensating .44—pushing his fucking glasses into his nose and hours—hours—on the hot seat with Finn!  All because of her and whatever the fuck she was doing in Chinatown—new clothes for her—sprucing up the digs for her—nicking that Triad cash to impress her

Then again, he’d come through it.  He owned Liam’s ass now, Mitch was treating him like a pal, and Old Man Finn had personally invited him to the Fish Fry with instructions to bring his girl.  He was moving up in the world, and he spent the next two blocks replaying everything that happened since he stepped into that back room, highlighting for himself how very well he handled it.  Yeah, Gina was trouble, but he was man enough to handle it.  Sure Gina was trouble, but it was the kind of trouble that set things in motion.  They were really quite a team—quite a team—and as he rode up in the elevator, he thought that maybe he should get her a little something the night of the Fish Fry—a charm bracelet with a dolphin maybe—to show his appreciation.

That was the thought until he opened the door and Psychobat reminded him of all he’d noted the last time he stood on this spot: Selina had just been there.  She’d let the cat in from the fire escape, she’d been scrambling around moments before he opened the door, and she’d left the teapot in plain sight.  He seethed as he closed the door behind him, seethed as he stalked down the hall and, finding her sitting on his couch looking up expectantly as if for an announcement, he decided Matches would definitely hold a grudge.

“Well,” Selina prompted.  “Are we in?”

“Yes,” he said, biting off the word savagely.  “Thursday night.  He wants to meet you.”

“Meow,” she said with a satisfied smile that made Psychobat’s anger spike again.  Impossible woman, careless criminal, willful, undisciplined…  “I figured things were happening when one of them came here last night, and then Barbara buzzed me as soon as they hit the website.  It was so much fun,” she laughed.  “I wish you could have seen Cassie.  She’s a natural.” 

Behind Malone’s glasses, Psychobat glared.

“Congratulations in cultivating her inner criminal.  I should have known you’d have too much ‘fun’ with this.”

“And what’s up your nose?” Selina asked, arching an eyebrow in place of flexing claws that weren’t there. 

“This isn’t a game.  And your blasted idea of fun, getting the whole family involved—”

“I used the best people available for the job.  The job got done, Finn bit, we got the invitation.  What’s your problem?”

Psychobat made a fist reflexively, as he often did during Hell Month.  Bruce started to speak but thought the better of it at the last second, manifesting in a slight grinding of teeth and an exhale that Selina felt as a belated density shift.

I would have liked to have more control over the operation, that’s all.

“Always,” Selina said with knowing suspicion.  “You never have as much control as you like.  If you reacted like this, it would be your constant state of being.  Which would not be fun for anybody, so why don’t we—”

“Why don’t you get around to telling me where you got all those cobalt bowls, particularly the one from the Museum of the Philippines.”

Selina tilted her head at the confused kitten angle, trying to work out the puzzle, and then Catwoman’s eyes narrowed.  Her voice deepened into the richly sensual bedroom tone as she said:

“Suppose I do.  Suppose I tell you.  You’ll have a little ‘win.’  Exert some control.  Make me do exactly what you want—with the jaw and the glare and the waves of angry Psychobattitude crashing away like surf before a storm.  You.  Win.  And it’s not going to make you feel one bit better, because that’s not what’s really bothering you, you arrogant jackass prick.”

Tell me.  Where.  They came from.

She smiled, impishly, and began the detailed history of a pair of 18th century Phoenix Bowls and how they came to be in her possession… and that of some Ming Swatow ware from a junk that sunk off San Isidro in the mid-16th century and wound up in the Philippines Museum… the mixing bowl from one of the earliest tea caddies made for a representative of the East India Company… a Kangxi slop bowl made for the armorial tea set of Sir John and Lady…

 

As predicted, Selina’s scrupulously detailed disclosure of her acquisitions did nothing to assuage Psychobat.  It refined his anger in a crucible of simulated patience—though he halted the process at midnight in the hopes that another solo walk to the ATM might tempt another mugger.  Having no such luck, and knowing Selina wouldn’t be inclined to accommodate him with some roughhouse sparring tonight, he tried the alleys where he’d met Nightwing.  He knew the team was busy and the chance of an encounter outside of a prearranged meeting time was practically nil, but he had to try.  His fists ached for relief… though as he returned home, he sensed that a picked fight with Nightwing would have been even less satisfying than with Selina.  So it was back to simulated patience, channeling old denials, and exerting control wherever he could in compensation for the areas he couldn’t. 

An offset Selina was fed up with.  By the time Thursday night rolled around, he’d offered eight suggestions about what Gina should wear to the Fish Fry and supplied three devices for covert communication.  Threats to rob various gem dealers when they returned to Rio had proved ineffective, so before going into the bedroom to get dressed, she googled the two leading ones, H Stern and Amsterdam Sauer, and marched into the bedroom prepared to show him specific pieces.

“One more word about my outfit, this aquamarine right here.  A word—one single word—about my makeup, it’s going to cost them this imperial topaz.  And so help me, you try to put nanites in my nail polish again, this big honkin’ amethyst will never see the inside of a gift box.  Am I making myself clear?”

“It’s natural and perfectly in character for Matches to feel a lot is riding on this and for him to be coaching you, even to the point of annoying you,” he graveled.

Matches did not put a microdot in my bra, Bruce.  That was you, that was you coming completely off the rails.  Now, I love you, so knock it off or the big blue tourmaline gets it.  Are we clear?”

He grunted, turned away, and muttered that her fur was only ruffled because their big undercover mission involved cracking a safe and he was going to be the one to do it. 

“I heard that,” she said through clenched teeth, and he appeared behind her in the mirror, dangling a bracelet.

“I first thought Matches might give you this tonight, but that’s not a good idea.  Gina might be inclined to draw attention to it if it’s new, so you’ve had it for years.  This wave is the power knob.  Message displays here.  Countdown timer.  Send.  Receive.”

“Got it,” she said with curt professionalism, then once she adjusted the clasp she added, “and this better be the last one.”

 

It was necessary that Matches and Gina arrive a bit late.  Bruce didn’t want Finn spiriting Gina away for a private interview before she could establish a diversionary presence with the rest of the guests, so he decided that, neither of them having been on Staten Island before, they’d get lost.  His timing was perfect and they walked in just as the bustle of arrivals was subsiding but before the mass migration to the game room.  Introductions were brief. 

“So this is the girl last seen with Marcuso,” Finn asked, though clearly not as a question.  “Think you’re going to play up to me like you did him?”

“No, sir,” Gina said simply, which brought a raised eyebrow.

“Sir?  And why not?”

“He didn’t remind me of my granda.”

It struck the right note, and while Finn didn’t actually laugh, he put an approving hand on her shoulder as he steered her and Matches into the dining room to meet his wife…

“Your daideo, eh?  You’re a grifter?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would that be something you learned from your daideo?”

“Yes, sir.”

They reached the dining room, an unnervingly homey room for those accustomed to the pretentions of Falcones, Cobblepots and al Ghuls.  Sturdy furniture made of dark wood, highly polished, recalled a time of post-war pride and prosperity.  On the center of the dinner table on a round of hand-made lace, a large colorful bowl of fruit sat surrounded by trays of cold cuts, fried cod, whisky chicken and fresh rolls. 

Mrs. Finn greeted Matches with the easy acceptance of one who is always happy to welcome an extra son to the table, while Gina received a skeptical once-over as a presumed trollop who’d appropriated one of her boys.  As an accomplished grifter, Gina was more than able to charm her way over that hurdle, though Psychobat would have preferred she not draw on Selina’s knowledge and taste so much to do it.  The recipe she shared for a sweet Guinness reduction to dip Irish soda bread was the brainchild of celebrity chef Kevin Dundon, and while Gina could have known it from her and Matches’s occasional visits to the chichi places in the theatre district, it was, in fact, something Selina had charmed out of Dundon for Alfred.  Chef-beguiling aside, there was no way the eye that spotted that centerpiece was anything but Selina’s.  He even heard a hint of Catwoman’s voice when she said “What a pretty bowl.”  Even if the adjective was suitably simple for the delicately hand-painted porcelain with its flourishes of red, gold and green layered over blue and white, it was sloppy.  How at this late stage in the cover could she be so undisciplined?

While the men queued up to fill their plates, Gina murmured discreetly to Mrs. Finn and was directed to a distant powder room.  When she returned, everyone but Mrs. Finn had left the dining room and filed down to the basement, a deceptively large space with a skee ball machine, pool table, dart board, foosball, large-screen TV, and an island bar with a keg of the inevitable Guinness.  Gina settled next to Matches, primped his collar affectionately, and whispered that the safe was in the bedroom behind the needlepoint, a Reed-Hardy Premiere from the 30s, would take him nine minutes tops (she could do it in seven). 

After about fifteen minutes of chewing and chit-chat in which Matches studied everyone’s position and sightlines, the X-box was fired up, and as if he was waiting for the start-up sound as a cue, Finn appeared before Matches and Gina.  He asked her to come up to his study, and as they went, Matches carefully orchestrated his own departure so the others might think he left with Finn and Gina, but Finn would think he’d stayed behind.  For safety sake, he went to the bathroom to wash his hands, and then slipped into the Finns’ bedroom.

 

Finn had poured himself a small whisky and held the glass under his nose, inhaling deeply without so much as moistening his lips while he studied Gina intently.  After a slow count of ten, he spoke:

“Matches tells me you’re a good girl who always pays the local boss his cut.”

“If there is one, yes sir,” she nodded.

“Who do you pay in Chinatown, King Snake or one of the triads?”

“I’m not in Chinatown, sir.  I just use a storefront there for the convincer, that’s all.  There’s a Chinese girl I use.  If she pays someone, it’s no concern of mine.”

Finn considered this and nodded.  Again, he took a long sniff of whisky instead of drinking it, then he continued. 

“So what part of town are you in when you’re not sharing a roof with Malone?”

She described a modest one bedroom in an affluent neighborhood, “five hundred foot, bare bones, but a doorman building” where she really lived, and an arrangement she had with a doorman in one of the LEED sustainable green buildings nearby, where she appeared to live if a mark came looking.  Finn noted her easy use of the jargon, the casual familiarity of one well-versed in housing programs, neighborhood development and construction.

“One of the LEED sustainable green buildings, eh?” he said, like he was repeating the names of the pop stars and boy bands his children or grandchildren admired.  Then he took a thoughtful sip of whisky.  “That neighborhood used to be under Roman Falcone.  Who owns it now?”

“The Riddler liberated it during the war and nobody took over after that,” Gina explained.  “So I’m free range.”

“Not so good for you,” Finn sniffed.  “With no boss, you don’t have to pay a cut, but there’s no protection.  You have a problem, somebody rips you off, hurts you—pretty little thing like you—suppose Matches decides to slap you around and take all those watches from you.  What do you do then?  Can’t go to the police.”

 

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal.  Love leaves a memory no one can steal.

Beneath the stoic mask of Matches Malone, Psychobat wretched at the sentimentality of the framed needlepoint sampler that hid Finn’s safe.  Then he felt carefully along the edge to find its hinge, depressed a release and opened it softly with one hand while the other took out his phone.  He slid open the back of the case to reveal a trio of slim, telescoping dowels pivoting off a tiny hinge, a gel disk the size of a breath mint and a metal one the size of a thumb tack.  He attached these to various points on the safe door and dial, fired up the bluetooth and then touched the edge of his glasses, activating a HUD inside the left lens:

Full Angle, Scale, Left Contact, Right Contact appeared to the left of a circular representation of the dial.  To the right, a column of labels: Drive, Wheel 3, Wheel 2, Wheel 1 hovered above digital displays.  As he began rotating the dial, the zeroed out grids sprang to life: Full Angle 360, Scale 100, Left Contact 0202 over 05.0  Right contact 0000 over 15.6. 

Nine minutes, she said.  They’d see who took nine minutes to open this thing.

 

“Tell me about these grifts,” Finn ordered (while the bracelet that was certainly not a recent gift from Matches received a signal). 

“Well, I’m my own roper,” Gina began. (Though she was in no position to check the message, she felt the slight vibration and assumed he’d begun work on the safe and the countdown had begun.)

“Isn’t that false economy?” Finn asked.

“No, sir.  I don’t do it to avoid paying a cut.  I do it because the whole purpose of a roper is to disarm a mark’s suspicions.  If Matches strikes up an acquaintance and then introduces us, it’s an extra dot to connect that we might be working together.  The guy who might have contrived that first meeting never asked you for anything, never brought you any deal.  It’s the person you were introduced to, or actually asked to meet, that’s the one bringing you a deal.”

“Like I did with you,” Finn grinned, and Gina didn’t contradict him.

“It all seems safer.  For the average grifter.  Unless you look like me.  Marks are happy to come up and introduce themselves.  All I have to do is sit at the bar in their favorite restaurant and nurse a glass of chardonnay.  When what they thought was a pick-up turns into a business opportunity, they’re pleased with themselves, like they accidentally drew an inside straight.  It’s built in misdirection.  All a roper would do is get in the way: If you meet me through Matches, you wonder if he’s banging me, and if that wrecks your chances of banging me.  It’s more work for me trying to get around to the deal.”

“And this deal is what?  Your marks are in construction?  Real estate?  If I’m one of these developers blasting a shovel into the ground, making the big bucks and then heading for the hills, managing all those electricians, carpenters, roofers and plumbers, what does a little thing like you, not a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, have to sell me?”

Gina smiled and her tone changed as she went into her spiel. 

“You want to build a complex on the East End.  Couple of condos, three hundred room hotel, sake bar, nightclub—hot and cold running B & Ter cash.  Plus the tax breaks for neighborhood revitalization, make up for that lingering smell of loser,” she said, twitching her nose playfully.  “So hard to get out of the carpets.”

Without asking, Finn set a glass before her and poured her shot before refilling his own.  He could see why the developers liked her.  It wasn’t her looks (though that certainly helped.)  She spoke their language.  ‘Accidentally drawing an inside straight’ indeed.

“I drop the name of a councilman whose heart bleeds for the gutter that was,” she continued.  “The East End trash displaced by all the development.  I tell you, confidentially and off the record, he’s ready to kill your project, quash it in committee so it never gets a vote.”

“Unless I provide a small reminder that’s what the outer boroughs are for,” Finn said.  “Say eight to twelve thousand?”

“Correct.  Obviously a campaign contribution would look suspicious.  This is a local election, no Super PACs for cover.  So we go shopping.”

“To your convincer in Chinatown.”

“China has four marvelous categories of antiques: porcelain, bronze, jade, and these small teapots made from, like, magic clay that make better tea the longer they’re used.  The foodies go crazy for them.  Ridiculous how much they’ll pay.  And the thing is, unless you’re a super expert, the brand new stuff they sell to tourists for twenty bucks looks just like one from the 19th century that’s worth $200 or one from, like, the Ming dynasty worth 80,000.  So I bring you to the store and tell you to buy a certain vase.  It costs $8000; it’s worth maybe 250.  And you haven’t bribed anybody.”

“I’ve just been a damn fool overpaying for a little china dish,” Finn laughed.  “That’s smart.  Buyer beware.  And you said this is the convincer?”

“Me Da always said too simple and straightforward is trouble.  If it feels wrong, I’ll end it there and walk away.  But if I think I’ve got him hooked, I’ll return his money the next day.  Tell him the councilman has a problem in-house and can’t take a risk right now.  Prying eyes.  The vote will go through, no charge, and maybe down the line, we can do business again.”

“My convincer is getting my own money back?” Finn raised an eyebrow. 

“And you score a very pretty Chinese dish,” Gina said.

“You make me wish I’d had a daughter.”

 

Tracking on...  Left 10…  Drive 7.3.  Wheel 1 2 and 3 all at 64.1 until… 65.9…

The combination point tracking, high resolution position tracking for all wheels, real-time display of all positions and automatic high and low point identification surpassed anything Selina had from Kittlemeier—though Catwoman might not see it that way.  His device might not be faster than her methods, but it required less concentration, permitting him to access the audio from the microdot while he worked and monitor conversation in the game room.  It sounded like Mitch was shooting pool with Roy. Two others were playing Assassin’s Creed.  The rest might have been watching or playing darts; it was hard to tell.  The conversation was intermittent and casual in any case.  Everyone accounted for, no one wandering and no one wondering where Matches had gone… 24

There it was.  59…8…41…66…24… Safe open, and…  

There it was: the imposingly thick journal the crew called Finnegan’s Wake.  Financial records and contacts for the Westies going back who knew how long.

Not that he had time to gloat.  It was going to take a while to scan.

 

“When I give you back your money,” Gina said, miming it to give Finn a look inside her invisible handbag, “you’ll see that I have a lot of similar envelopes, most of them thicker.  The councilman obviously has a lot of payoffs to return, and you know they can’t all be contractors like you.  So you become very charming and ask me out for a drink, or several drinks, sometimes even dinner, so you can find out what all those lovely payoffs were for.”

“Yes?” Finn prompted.

“It has to do with 80/20 housing.  Let’s focus on those apartments you were building in addition to the hotel.  You’d know there are huge tax breaks to be had if you reserve twenty percent of the units to accept laughably low rent.  Maybe six hundred dollars a month for a four or five thousand dollar apartment.  Tenants have to make less than half the median income for the neighborhood to qualify—but the sweet thing is, in a lot of Gotham neighborhoods that can still be quite a hefty income.  So there are more desirable Twenty Percenters and… less.  Consider this gal,” she said, offering an invisible envelope from her invisible purse as an example.  “Studied law in Australia, clerked for a supreme court justice there, moved to The Netherlands to work for the Hague, office of the prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  Here in Gotham, she’s studying international criminal prosecution and paying her bills working as a translator at the U.N.  Do you really want to give her apartment to some East End guttersnipe?”

“So the better kind of tenant is paying off the councilman to rig the lottery, is that it?  What’s in it for me?  Ah wait, I see, these more desirable tenants can pay more than the mandated rent.  I can charge them, say, an extra two thousand a month, which I can’t collect in cash, so they’ll pay up buying a not-really-ming teacup.  That’s how I get the greedy spark in my eye that you will exploit to take my money.”

The twinkle in his own eye bespoke a different sort of greed: the leverage he needed over the construction and real estate interests who thought they were tough enough to defy Maewyn Finn.  Threats of a bribery scandal, rental scams, defrauding the city, and fiddling with the tax laws, that would give him the leverage he was after.

 

Matches had scanned three-fourths of the journal when Mrs. Finn headed down to the game room with a large bowl of chips to “see how you boys are doing” and to take orders for a second round of sandwiches.  The regular guests were predictable in their habits, but she had no idea about that new boy, Matchbook.  She turned around looking for him, and Roy told her he was in with her husband and Gina.

“Oh no,” Mrs. Finn corrected innocently.  “He went that way but came right back out again,” she said— but Matches was coming down the stairs behind her before anyone could register surprise at the news.

“Right here,” he said, taking the stairs three at a time.  “Stepped into the little boys’ room coming out of the study.” 

There were a few smirks, not at the colloquialism (the homey atmosphere had reduced all of them to Sunday School language at their first Fish Fry) but at Malone’s obvious jitters.

“Nervous ‘cause his girl’s in there with Finn,” Raglan teased, and Malone’s defensive murmur that he was just washing his hands was taken as confirmation. 

“Don’t worry, we’ve never lost a redhead,” Roy’s brother reassured him, everybody laughed, and Mrs. Finn brought him a bigger sandwich which he accepted with a forced grin.

Ongoing worry was easy to feign.  He’d had to haul ass when he heard Mrs. Finn in the game room.  He’d left the safe unlatched, the journal lying open on dresser with the scanner wand laying inside it… 

 

“The stings vary,” Gina explained.  “But basically you open an account with the shop in Chinatown just like you would at a bank.  You buy a small lot of nice-but-not-especially-valuable jade, vases, figurines or whatever.  And I explain how, whenever you’re receiving a payoff, you’ll let them know to expect a buyer and how many thousand they’re to collect… I take a piece at random from your box to illustrate…  for this unspeakably ugly pink and green thing.  As I hold it out to you, you can’t help but notice these numbers written on the bottom, black marker, red marker, different handwriting.  They must mean something, but it’s obviously not important.  Maybe some kind of internal bookkeeping the shop uses…

“Day or two later, you get a visit from a man with a badge, usually a homicide detective, wanting to know your connection to me, because I’m dead.  Well it varies, but usually I’m dead.  Turns out, that particular lot of cicada pendants contained an authentic antiquity, buried on the tongue of a Han Dynasty emperor, or something like that.  An important vase.  An important bronze.  People’s Republic is very pissed that it was lost, definitely want someone’s head.  You see, the whole thing comes down to these codes that museums and collectors put on the bottom of their pieces for cataloging.  He shows you a picture, and the markings are just like the code on the bottom of your ugly pink vase—a set of digits in red magic marker and a different set in a different handwriting in black—one is the code of a big museum in Pittsburgh, one is a very famous collector they bought it from.  Thing is, it went missing from that museum in 2008, but for some reason the shop has you down as the owner.

“So this is quite a mess, and you’ll gladly pay the going rate to make it go away.”

“Ahhh,” Finn said with a wide smile and shining eyes.  “Good.  After all those complications, the sting is very simple.  Pay to make it go away.  That’s very good.  Exotic and complicated everywhere else.  Simple at the very end. 

“You’ll move your operation to the Kitchen,” he decreed.  “Office in one of our buildings, maybe a storefront eventually for the convincer.  For now, you’ll set up a private room in back of the pub, like that, eh, what was it called, ‘Vintage Watch Room’ you did for my boys.  And yes, that means you’ll pay me a cut; I see your wheels turning, lassie.  Don’t you worry, you’ll be making plenty extra with some special marks I’ll want you to target.”

“Yes, sir.”

Finn was charmed.  He liked the way it sounded, that “Yes, sir.”  Half charmed by Gina, half by his own cleverness in unearthing this treasure, he walked her back to the game room and, like an indulgent uncle treating a favorite niece, told her she could tell Matches the news herself.  Given her flamboyant style, he expected a big announcement.  Instead, she took Matches into the corner and whispered in his ear.  It was quite sweet, really.  Girly but sweet.  Matches kissed her ear like he was proud of her…

 

…and told her about the snafu.  He needed more time to get back to the bedroom and finish the scan.

Fortunately, distracting a room full of criminals was not something Selina found difficult.  She started with Toss, getting him to explain Assassin’s Creed—a spectacle that was sufficiently entertaining, most of the others watched.  She shot pool with Raglan, only for a few minutes, but the sight of her backside bending over the table commanded everyone’s attention.  She got Roy’s brother to show her how to properly throw a dart.  Seeing the way it involved touching her elbow and her wrist, Liam jumped in to give a second lesson, adjusting her hip, and then Roy noticed her head wasn’t straight, which meant touching her chin.  The result was a terrible shot that barely hit the board and Gina laughed like a good sport, declaring herself hopeless.  Finally she brought Mitch a fresh Guinness and asked timidly if he could explain what he was saying to Matches the other night at Upper Deck, about cars.  “It sounded so interesting, but I didn’t want to sound stupid interrupting with a lot of dumb questions…”

When Matches returned, Mitch was finishing up on the strength-to-weight ratio of carbon fiber chassis and the resulting maneuverability that made evading the Batmobile possible.  Coincidentally the Batmobile was, at that moment, making a measured pass through Hell’s Kitchen.  Past the craft beer place… past La Crema… past the entrance to Matches’s apartment…past the ATM, past Tigh Mallory, past Bolo… past Upper Deck, past the old print shop, past Finn’s pub...  None of those in favor with the Westie Boss were there to see it, of course, but it was noticed by others.  Word would get around, especially once Matches and Gina disappeared.  Theories would fly. 

Then Batman himself would be spotted before Raglan went missing, and speculation would run wild.  Roy and his brother would see that scalloped shadow in time and convince themselves they’d escaped Raglan’s fate with a mad dash to the theatre district, Roy taking refuge in the men’s room at Esca while his brother blended in with the intermission smokers at Kinky Boots.

For a day, fear would build like a fever.  Hunted Liam would be twitchier than ever, his frantic dread marking him out as more dangerous to those around him than their nebulous Bat-terrors…  Mitch’s fear was more sullen.  It lurked in treacherous silence in a radius around his booth, then it stalked like a hungry tiger around the pool table while he decided to play. 

What if Matches turned rat?  What if Raglan turned rat?  Did the Bat even give you that option? 

He chalked his cue and circled the table… then decided against playing and returned it to the rack. 

What if the Bat didn’t even have them?  What if it was a random pass through the neighborhood and somebody—somebody like that sneaky bastard Liam—took advantage of the sighting to hit them, knowing any disappearance would be chalked up to a Bat-bust?

He ordered a shot and a beer, then ignored the beer and called for the bottle.

None of that was the worst case scenario.  What if Finn saw everyone looking squirrelly and decided they weren’t reliable?  Decided he wasn’t reliable?  What if Liam—twitchy, hunted, sneaky bastard Liam—was wondering the same thing and tried to cut a deal to save his own skin?

He picked up his untouched beer, walked it across the bar and sat down at Liam’s table to make peace.  They might renew their war tomorrow, but today there was only one enemy.

“Bad cess to the Batman,” Liam toasted.

“Bad cess to the Batman,” Mitch agreed.

Then the lights went out.

 

The raids began at sundown.  Though they didn’t cover the space or require the manpower of the Falcone operation, the FBI and Secret Service had a presence thanks to the breadth of the crimes charged.  Eleven indictments, including a variety of federal charges, lead to the arrest of ninety-one individuals from all levels of the Westies organization with charges running the gamut from murder-for-hire to gambling.  Unlike the Falcone raids, Gotham’s costumed vigilantes made a showing, softening up several Westie strongholds before the police arrived.  In two extreme cases: Tigh Mallory and Finn’s Pub, squads arrived to find all the felons disarmed, cuffed and unconscious. 

As with the Falcone raids, media coverage varied.  The Gotham Times focused on the removal of criminals and reduction of crime.  There was one paragraph speculating if there might be a scramble by rival gangs to claim the freed territory, but mostly the facts were reported without political spin.  The Chronicle focused on Gordon, contrasting him favorably with his predecessor in every way.  The Gordon/Westie raids were cheaper than Muskelli/Falcone, due in part to the smaller scale but mostly to Gordon not being a glory hound.  He wasn’t averse to involving vigilantes, he made better use of the federal agencies, and he didn’t find it necessary commandeer a school to process arrests in a glitzy move to generate photo ops.  The Gotham Post ran a shocking expose that fast food isn’t as healthy as fresh fruit.  Only the Daily News mentioned that alleged Westie boss Maewyn Finn suffered a sudden heart attack in the interrogation room at the 23rd Precinct.

Concluded in epilogue…


Chapter

 

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