The descender eased Tommy’s fall to a gentle bob before a small box above a sixteenth floor window. He regarded its green LED with the detached malice usually reserved for low-tier drug dealers.
“Snag,” he graveled into a bone-conduction mic fitted onto his visor.
..::There always is,::.. the earpiece whispered calmly. ..::What’s the problem?::..
“The vibration detector isn’t a P20. It’s grayer than it looked in the photo, and the corners are rounded.”
..::Well, megapixels or not, it was taken from across the street, and you said yourself, the glare made it all guesswork. Send me a picture?::..
“Already transmitting,” Tommy said touching a button on his wrist unit and noting that nine minutes and forty-two seconds had passed since they stood toe-to-toe on the sidewalk across the street. He would have to admit, it was exhilarating. The rhythm as they approached each other, coming to a halt in perfect sync, there was a thrill he wasn’t prepared for. There was a naughty grin, a lip twitch, and three crisp tones as their watches and timers synched; eyes locked for a final beat before neatly turning north and south: he to the service door for the Brandt Building and she to the lobby. He with a case of gear and she with the little handbag fit for nothing more than the credit card, lipstick and (malfunctioning) phone she’d take clubbing.
At the service door, he blinded the alley camera with a laser strobe, made quick work of the door, and trusted that Selina’s performance was well under way in the lobby distracting the guards and zapping their CC monitors with static while he made his way to the hub. There he froze the rest of the cameras and took advantage of the ample ventilation and cooling ducts an overzealous architect had provided to keep all those electronics from overheating. When he reached the stairwell, he opened the channel in time to hear her final “Grazie” (apparently tonight’s club girl was Italian rather than French) to the guards who were so helpful with her phone’s wonky GPS. By the time he reached the Brandt roof, she would be changed and following in his footsteps through the service door. By the time he reached Hobbs’s office, she would have the Brandt roof cleared of his gear and be working her way out the way he’d got in, unfreezing the cameras and restoring the door as she went. At least that was the plan…
..::Okay, yeah, that’s a P190. ‘Snag’ is an understatement. It’s a good thing we’re not using the windows on those top floors or we’d be screwed. That thing can not only sense the vibrations if you cut the glass, it would pick up those electromagnets you’re going to use to get around it. You can still get in on fourteen like we planned, but—::..
“But this is feeding into an EVD that’s monitoring an unknown number of other sensors. All the windows on these upper floors, and potentially—”
..::Vibration, sound and proximity sensors inside, yes. Getting from fourteen up to Barry’s office on twenty-two just got a bit trickier.::..
“A bit trickier?”
..:: You go on getting in that window. Leave it open while you tackle the PIRs, and I’ll be down to join you.::..
He started to ask how she would reach the Hobbs roof without the descender she’d already struck, when he remembered who he was talking to. Catwoman had her own methods just like Batman did. He cleared his throat as he lowered to the fourteenth floor window. “There is one more minor issue,” he said.
..:: Yes? ::..
“Your comm voice, whispering in my ear, it could be less maddeningly sexy.”
..:: I’ll see what I can do. ::..
Within two minutes, Tommy had removed the bolts on the target window, attached telescoping bolts in their place, and slid the entire frame along stainless steel buffered rollers until he achieved an opening large enough to squeeze through. Lassoing the light fixture, swinging over the infrareds and disarming the office alarm took all of eight seconds, and that left only waiting for the guard to make his pass. What Selina called “a guilty mind” scrutinized the bend in the venetian blind and the look of the window frame beyond. It looked suspicious to the thief that just came through it, but the crimefighter’s eye assured him there was nothing to see unless you knew where to look. Even Batman would not scrutinize that particular window on this particular floor. There was no reason to believe a night watchman would.
So he waited in the dark, splitting his focus between the hall where the guard should pass and the window where Catwoman would appear. He saw the dot of purple first and ordered her to stand by, the guard hadn’t passed yet. Almost immediately there were footsteps. The blind seemed to bend more as the sound came closer…
It gleamed in moonlight that must surely be getting brighter as those footsteps approached…
Shadow and silhouette lumbered past the glass wall…
Past the window that now seemed glaringly open…
And the purple movement outside that shone more conspicuously than the bat signal…
The guard passed without slowing.
The footsteps grew distant.
Then the sound of the stair door announced his departure… Opening… then closing behind him.
“Clear,” he whispered into the comm, and the dot of purple sprang to life, coming closer until it was Catwoman’s lithe silhouette squiggling and contorting through the window.
“Nice job,” she remarked, touching the edge of the frame with her claw tip.
They followed the guard’s route to the stairwell, and from there to the sixteenth floor. Tommy had no trouble defeating the card reader meant to keep the hoi polloi from accessing the upper floors, and the sensor he’d placed on that first vibration detector led them to the EVD hub. Selina studied it for a moment, her fingers forming a neat triangle under her nose.
“Indoor sensors are never as good as the salesmen pretend,” she whispered. “They’re optimized for 72 degrees, 50% humidity, and the more that fluctuates, the more they lose their tiny little minds. False alarms get a system replaced, so the thresholds to trigger an alarm are raised as changes in temperature or humidity make it less certain of the signals it’s receiving.”
She reached to the neck of her suit and slid out an atomizer on a thin chain.
“I like to keep it warm,” she explained before spritzing above the unit, and then outside the face that was open mesh. “Now take this,” she said, handing Tommy an ordinary lighter. “Make it uncomfy around those holes where the wires go in.”
After about a minute of this assault, she isolated a particular cable. “At this point, this hub is finding it hard to evaluate the matrix of signals it receives the way it’s supposed to. If we trip a window alarm, it will still go off. But that’s as far as it goes. It’s not adding that trip—or any lesser signals—to the greater picture it has of what’s going on in the building. It’s no longer a ‘smart’ system. Normally, I’d deliver a coup de gras and just snip this, but since we don’t want them to know anyone was here…” she gave the cable vicious bend and then pinched it. “There, the pieces aren’t working together, the power supply is wonky, we should be able to disarm as we go as originally planned. When they eventually find it—a crimped cable—it’s normal wear and tear on a unit that’s too delicate and for its own good.”
A slow, calculating smile curled Tommy’s lip as he absorbed this. “That’s the problem with the high end systems,” he breathed. “Too temperamental.”
“You could also be less maddeningly sexy,” Catwoman managed through a sudden flush.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Since Tommy had planned to search the office alone, Catwoman held back once they got in, letting him work while she regarded the walls with a sour pout.
“Not German expressionist,” Tommy noted, opening the head of Barry’s shredder.
“Putting it mildly,” she murmured. “Cindy Sherman, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince… Who is this guy?”
“Not what you expected.”
“Artists who are still alive, no that’s not what I expected from Barry Hobbs. Don’t get me wrong; they’re not bad. Just really… odd. As a collection, and as his collection… really… odd.”
He went to work on the safe, and she used his laparoscope tool to explore the hanging apparatus and shock sensors behind the frames.
“Hm, a USB,” he said, examining the thin blue thumb drive. “Why don’t you finish up the safe while I copy this and check the computer.”
“You got it,” she said, performing a final inspection of the frames before turning to the safe. Then she froze as the realization struck. Her lip quivered into the subtlest of smiles and she whispered “Yes, dear, I’ll finish up the safe while you do that.”
“Hm?” Tommy said absently as he powered up the tower.
“Nothing, I just… If this is what you feel when I help with the, you know, C-fighting, I admire your self-control,” she said. Before he could respond, her tone changed to the one used to greet stray cats on fire escapes. “Oh, hello.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll tell you later. Hurry up with the computer and let’s get out of here. This isn’t LexCorp but I wouldn’t want to be here any longer than necessary.”
She hadn’t mentioned a time factor previously, apart from the obvious one: avoiding the patrolling guards, but Bruce deferred asking questions. It took him twelve minutes to search Barry’s desk, study his computer, determine what was worthwhile, and copy. In that time, his subconscious analyzed the question: This isn’t LexCorp… Catwoman’s principal break-in at LexCorp was to steal the X-27 plans and she’d timed it during Bruce Wayne’s visit because a rival CEO in the building meant Luthor’s security was preoccupied. The plan gave her a more than comfortable window to work with, and the only reason to rush would be to minimize the chance of encountering Superman…
The mystery would have to wait. He’d finished with the computer, powered down and packed up his gear to move out. The return to the fourteenth floor was uneventful, but in that final office with the alarms and infrareds restored, Catwoman blocked his path at the window.
“You’ve come a long way, stud. There’s only one more thing I have to teach you.”
Behind the visor, his eyes went square. That did not sound good. Neither the words nor the warble of a distant siren. There were always sirens at this time of night, but…
“We’ve got probably two, two-and-a-half minutes before the guard comes through again,” Catwoman was saying, “so this is just about perfect.”
“I’m listening,” he graveled with the edge that told gunmen he would be still for now to keep them from shooting the hostage, but they would pay for the reprieve in pain.
“This is where we settle accounts,” Catwoman said. “Any final business, threats, accusations of betrayal—”
“On the getaway?!” he said incredulously.
“I know. Weird, right?” she nodded, smiling, but didn’t move aside. “Alarm goes off in the castle, flood lights pop on all around the building, and you choose this particular moment to tell me you think I’m pulling a fast one.”
“That is insane,” Tommy hissed.
“Yeah, that’s why I work alone. I’ve even known one Loony Tunes that pulled out a flask at this point for a celebratory nip.”
“You agree it’s crazy and yet you’re doing it.”
“You should know it goes on. Considering what Tommy is for, the kind of people you’ll be working with, you need to know. Once you’ve got the prize and before you’re off the property, that’s when it goes down. And the only way to learn it is to live it.”
“I’ve learned, let’s go,” he snapped, and she casually stepped aside and let him go first out the window.
It was just after one when Tommy reached his apartment, the middle of the work day as far as Batman was concerned. The heist, while exhilarating, was nowhere near the physical exertion of a night’s patrol. Rest wasn’t needed, and he had it straight from Selina that she would indulge in cooing over an especially ‘yummy’ prize when she got home, particularly if it was an extravagant item of jewelry. So he would dig into the data from Barry’s computer. It wasn’t terribly different from working on the logs when he returned to the cave—including, he was sure, the interruption that would eventually pull him away.
Catwoman had left him a few blocks from the Hobbs building, telling him to take whatever route he thought best. In theory it was to assure himself he wasn’t being followed, but he suspected other reasons. First: it let him experience the possibility if not the anxiety of a Bat-encounter as he made his way home after a crime. To be alone in his head as he took those precautions, the awareness taking every step with him until he reached his bedroom window with those second-rate sightlines.
And it worked; he was anxious. Nightwing was out there covering for him tonight, and if he didn’t dread the prospect of meeting one of Gotham’s masked vigilantes in the same way another criminal might, it would be mortifyingly awkward. Dick would…
His mind boggled actually trying to imagine what Dick would do faced with the scenario. There would be mirth, certainly. Mirth he would want to share. With Barbara? Tim? Wally? Even if he kept it to himself, it wasn’t something he would ever let Bruce forget. So it’s fair to say Tommy scrutinized the horizon as actively as any escaping burglar, with equal if not greater care to avoid a meeting.
The second reason for Catwoman’s departure knocked on his window ninety minutes after he’d begun the overview of the data. She had stopped for champagne.
“I couldn’t decide between the Dom Pérignon or the Krug, so I brought both,” she announced happily. “Dom is the ‘03, heatwave vintage, not quite the occasion of the 2004, which I don’t think you care about when you’re not fopping, but the Krug was right there so I thought why not. Like the man said: always have a back-up.”
“I meant for motion sensors, not multi-vintage Grande Cuvée,” he chuckled, feeling Tommy was one to smile rather than scowl.
Selina kissed his cheek and gestured with a bottle in each hand. “Choose,” she ordered, and he pointed to the Krug.
“Did you celebrate like this alone?” he asked, rejecting the notion of Pearl working with a partner and looking on it as the chance to build a more plausible memory: returning to his ‘belfry’ alone after a job just as Selina had done to her apartment. Opening even a half-bottle of champagne for himself seemed… not festive. Maybe he would indulge in a small shot of that special scotch…
“No, opening a bottle just for me wasn’t appealing,” she said, confirming his thought. “I’d mostly show Whiskers and Nutmeg the new bauble sans refreshments. Maybe a few sips of vin santo now and then.”
Their eyes met, reliving confrontations that preceded so many of her solo trips home.
“It seems like a lonely life,” Bruce said quietly, draining his glass.
She shook her head and shrugged.
“Not really,” she said. “There isn’t a victory party, so what? There are other… satisfactions.” Her lips parted and she stretched up, asked in a kind of anguished moan if he remembered how she got away with that painting of the Rialto by Francesco Guardi. Time froze as he tasted the champagne on her breath, mesmerized by the color of those lips, the promised softness… “Making you do that,” she was saying—probably meaning his free hand which had somehow moved involuntarily around her waist.
“Mhm,” he managed, Psychobat raging as usual that his focus wasn’t where it ought to be. Even if, ironically, where it ought to be at the moment was the lesson his criminal sensei was trying to teach.
“I did the après-heist celebrations with Sean’s crew in Europe, and it was nice but it wasn’t enough to keep me there. It’s part of a package that doesn’t suit me. I liked my independence, I liked working alone, and then when I got back to Gotham, there was you. The thrills with you…” She took a deep, luxurious breath while the pad of her finger ran gently along the side of his mouth. “This was all I had of you back then, just this little bit here that you left exposed. Such a perfect mouth… that chin…” She trailed off, kissing him, and he picked her up, carried her to the sofa –where there was a lot of awkward grunting as legs wrapped prematurely around his waist, uncooperative clothing was removed and a tablet of Barry Hobbs’s data was extracted from under her back.
Forty minutes later, Selina was the one on top, Bruce on his back, and she was giggling.
“No, I mean it; I need a few,” he said, like a man who really could have used another minute of Tibetan breathing before round two.
“Not that. Look at the table,” she giggled.
Bruce’s head rolled to the side, and the low rumble that was his laugh joined hers.
“Nice panties,” he managed. “New?”
“Bought ‘em special,” she said.
“They’re nice,” he repeated.
Five minutes later when cognitive function returned, he mentioned the bit of taupe lace draped over a data pad was the kind of thing he used to stage on Wayne One to scandalize the clean-up crew.
Five minutes and a wake-up smoothie after that, he was back analyzing the data, which continued past dawn while Selina napped on the sofa. At 6:15 he urged her to move to the bedroom, sent an email to Lucius to cancel his appointments for the day, and returned to the data.
At 8:30 he heard Selina in the shower. Realizing he could use one himself, he settled for a wake-up glass of ice water and more Tibetan breathing, then he returned to the data.
At 11:45 when Selina left, he finally had the shower. He returned to the data now sifted into a dozen windows on the long wall screen while three additional windows reflected the churning of a data aggregator running it through stock market simulations.
At 5:19 as the first transmission from the paper shredder began processing, the data pad slipped from his hand as he fell asleep on the sofa…
Again he was making love to Selina, just as he had on this sofa, except now they were on Wayne One flying to Metropolis, that lacey undergarment tossed over his shoulder and landing on the bottle of champagne in a perfect snapshot of Wayne hedonism. The tablet she was awkwardly lying on was his preparation for his meeting with Luthor. He was supposed to be studying it on the flight but he couldn’t get her out of his mind… He didn’t even notice the tiny flashing light as he slid the tablet out from under her, the tiny purple indicator of a USB he’d also failed to notice. Something she’d slid into his device knowing he would be carrying it right into the LexCorp tower for her…
There he was shaking hands with Luthor, going through the motions pretending the meeting was anything more than a favor to Clark, an excuse to get eyes inside that vulgar new corporate headquarters that took the obsession with lead and sonic mesh to such ludicrous extremes. If only he’d known back then that Luthor hired Catwoman to break into his office, if he’d known then how reasonable she could be if asked to help in… the proper way.
His lip twitched as his dream rewove the memory, making her break-in part of Batman’s plan. His surprise was as feigned as Luthor’s when the alarm went off—that just-installed system whose volume controls hadn’t been properly set. His smile warmed at the thought: Catwoman tripped that alarm, not because she’d got the X-27 too easily, not because she was bored and she wanted to see what Luthor’s new security team had to offer… No, she’d done it because he told her to.
His vanish was the same, but instead of changing into Batman he went out the window and shimmied around the P190s just like he had at the Hobbs Trust. He planted one… two… three… four… external receivers for the wave modulators Catwoman was planting to counter the sonic mesh, allowing Clark to hear whatever was said in Lex’s office like he could anywhere else. If he squinted just so, he might even be able to make out figures and movement through the walls in spite of the lead.
It was done. All he’d have to do now was change and Batman would join Superman in the simplest of confrontations: keeping Lex occupied and directing his bluster away from Catwoman’s true objectiv—
Too late he realized the LexCorp Towers resembled a pair of Jenga towers more than an office building, and setting up all that wave cancelation around the sonic mesh could only… He heard a scream far below, Catwoman’s scream as the window frame he was hanging from began to rumble and shake.
“No,” he breathed as he felt the first give of the impending collapse, his mind’s eye picturing Catwoman at Luthor’s desk, X-27 plans obtained on a tiny memory stick, but staying to take her payment knowing he would welch. His accounts were laid bare on the screen, scrolling lines of banks and deposits… Nevis, Nassau, Costa Rica, Belize… and a cinematic transfer bar counting down zeroes as the transfer was complete.
She meowed at the screen, withdrew the memory stick, and in the instant she pulled it from the machine—just like sliding the wrong piece from the bottom of the Jenga—the tremors began and the whole building began crumbling. Huge chunks came hurling past his head and he leapt to a collapsing ledge, the instinct to keep moving without time to work through a reasonable route. The tower was coming down, and he rode a girder to a lower roof that was also crumbling. Somehow the LexCorp instability was becoming an earthquake, the whole city collapsing into God-knows-what. He ran on, in a window whose room was crashing in on itself, the floor tilting under him and knocking him out a different window and onto the street. He rolled, aching, and was again on his feet, atop the stairs in—in Daily Planet Plaza. He started running again—somehow Catwoman was beside him now, and managing to keeping up despite some gruesome tears to her costume that probably reflected nasty injuries underneath. They ran down the stairs, down the street, through another crumbling building—when the looming crater before them looked like the end—widening, deepening, bottomless and impossible to leap over—before that beautiful jolt of Superman grabbing them each at the waist and hoisting them to safety.
He woke (happily before Clark could ask if the carnage was a Batman protocol-gone-wrong).
… … … … :: Duty Log: Nightwing :: … … …
Well that was weird. Not that Bruce has ever been anything but a tangle of mixed messages where Catwoman is concerned, but I really thought I’d made my last WTH entry a long time ago.
Special entry | Afternoon Report | Civilian | Wayne Tower Penthouse
Like it matters. It was a Bludhaven night last night, see main log, and Babs usually lets me sleep as late as I want after those. Today she woke me up just before noon to say that she’d woken up to a message from Bruce. She then proceeded to do that PITA librarian thing giving me all the pointless cataloging details, as if I’d care before I’d even brushed my teeth. But that’s Babs. Gotta love her for it. Even now I don’t care that Bruce sent it after 5 through the manor relay. All that means is he probably sent it right after he finished the logs. If I was a compulsive teacher pleaser, maybe I would have read that log before going to see him, but I wasn’t cramming for a trig final. He wanted me to go to lunch at the Penthouse, so I showed up at 2, as requested, and figured if there was anything he wanted me to know from the night before, he’d tell me.
So I went over, he opened the door and… weird.
Okay, background. One of the creepiest things in the first months working with Batman was how he just knew stuff. Sometimes he would point out all the breadcrumbs that led to a conclusion so that some day I could do it myself. But other times he wouldn’t, and at the time I thought he was being all wax on/wax off mysterious. I later realized he couldn’t explain, because sometimes when you’ve been doing this long enough, you just suck in details without noticing. You just know and you can’t say why.
The second the elevator door opened, I thought of the diner in Bludhaven. The split second I saw Bruce’s face, I flashed on it: walking in that morning, seeing him sitting in that booth looking dour. He’d called at the crack of dawn the day after he’d seen Catwoman’s stage show. He called it lunch then too, even though he was already sitting in a booth across the street. I have no idea what made me think of it today when all he had done was say hello and ask about Barbara. I don’t know if it was something in his voice or what, but boy, all I could think of was waking up to that call “Thought we could have lunch” and walking into that diner seeing him sitting there.
And it only got weirder when he had me follow him to the kitchen. Not that Bruce cooking will EVER be less than weird. It’s like you wake up one day and the cat talks. He started explaining about the hellacious night he had and why he was squeezing in the meeting this way, when he turned—he just turned casually like it was nothing and said “You like tamago yaki, right?”
And he had an egg in his hand, which is probably the only reason I figured out that’s what they call those grilled Japanese omelets.
I said “Yeah, sure” (they are incredibly good) and he starts whipping together eggs and a little milk and soy sauce, gets a flame going under this rectangular frying pan, whisking with chopsticks—it was the weirdest damn thing you ever saw.
So while he’s cooking—I still can’t believe I typed that—while Bruce was cooking, he gave me the highlights of Batman’s night. A while back he cut a swath through the Cráneos Sangrientos and the small fry took over while their bosses were up the river. Now the bosses were back, the first wave that cut deals for reduced sentences that is, they were back on the street and tensions were running high. Also Lao Ha, a Chinese money launderer was in Gotham for 72 hours, undoubtedly to meet with one of the Triads. The FBI had a bigshot in from DC supervising what appeared to be a routine mortgage fraud investigation, but he wasn’t staying at the hotel they always used. That raised flags and Batman had been keeping an eye on him. Last night it paid off in that he uncovered and stopped an assassination attempt, but backfired in the amount of bluster, bruised ego and bullshit he had to deal with after. The assassin was apparently an ordinary freelance hitter whose employer found him through a Chechen-run murder-for-hire site on the dark web. He was not a soldier with the Chechen mob, but after forty minutes of trying, Batman still didn’t think the feds accepted that. They still thought it was the Chechens who ordered the hit.
“And then there was the Z activity that looked like a Mad Hatter front being prepared,” Bruce concluded, handing me a plate.
“Full night,” I admitted as we settled at the table.
“And this morning, Arkham was getting a water reclamation system installed. I wanted to be on hand to monitor the situation, walls open, strange workmen getting access. I barely had time to grab a shower and leave a note for Selina. This was the only time to meet.”
Translation from Bruce-Speak: whatever this was about, he needed it for tomorrow. Patrol/logs/shower/Arkham meant he’d had no sleep and was going to crash as soon as I left to get some rest before tonight’s patrol (which of course he wouldn’t consider skipping) so it was now or never. I would have offered to take his patrol, but I knew he’d turn it down so soon after the last time.
That much was old school Bruce. Then he asked about my tech work for the GCPD, which was just continuation of the Barbara-Bludhaven small talk before getting into it:
“The Lyon case, I remember hearing you and Tim talk about Robin Pop Quizzes. How bad was I?”
“GSR and Cross Contamination, GO,” I reminded him of my first test on gunshot residue while we were waiting for a Freeze henchman to depressurize a door.
He just smiled, so I went on. “Fire suppression as a murder weapon, GO. Nail guns as a murder weapon, go. Falsified alibies and surveillance video—”
“I get the picture,” he said. “Before that, before the quizzes, the systems you were asked to study. Particularly the financial systems: anti-money laundering, forensic accounting, enhanced due diligence, countering terrorist financing, what could have been better?”
“What could have been better?”
“In the way information was presented, the material you were asked to absorb.”
Weird, right? And ‘the material you were asked to absorb’ as if he was an indifferent bystander. He was the one doing the asking, though ‘assigning’ would be more like it and ‘demanding’ wouldn’t be a stretch. Naturally I kept those thoughts to myself. Truth is, it wasn’t any fun at the time (except for blood spatter which was all kinds of cool,) but I did have to learn it and Bruce’s Get It Done approach worked. I can’t imagine any other way to tackle so much detailed information on so many subjects than to just accept that you have to, put your head down and gnaw through it.
So I thought about the finance stuff specifically and did my best to come up with an answer.
“That first rat’s nest of holding companies the Penguin was using on that Langston Reed thing, that was the worst. I was resisting it so hard, it was just pieces of paper and I could not make myself concentrate on those numbers. But once I got over the hurdle, it was fine. I would get into a rhythm and just speed on through it. Start spotting patterns, connecting dots…”
“But what could have been better in the way it was presented. Opening the file, page 1, paragraph one, what could have been better?”
“Too. Many. Acronyms,” I told him. “OMG the acronyms. KYC, CYCB, CDD, EDD, SDD. And could we all get on the same page if it’s CTF Counter-terror financing or CFT Counter financing of terrorism. SAR, IMF, FATF—take it out back and shoot it already TIOBASIA-boom.”
Bruce laughed—which would have been the weirdest thing yet once upon a time, but it’s natural enough now that I kept going for the win.
“And then, when you think it cannot get any more constipated, when you are convinced these are not human beings at all but some kind of replicant intelligence that’s come to Earth and chose this niche to conceal its limited familiarity with our culture, that’s when they come up with Smurfs. Smurfs! For dividing illicit funds into small sums below regulatory thresholds—Smurfs! Because they’re small. That’s the last straw. That’s when you give up and say: You know what, I have skills. I can go back to the trapeze, this crimefighting isn’t for me.”
“Thank you for the insight,” Bruce said, shaking his head. He wasn’t guffawing or anything, but there was a big smile.
I still don’t know what it was all about. All he would say is it was a side project he was working on. (Totally not weird, Bruce holding back any information you don’t need to know.)
Selina woke to an exhausted scribble on the pillow next to her:
Just got in. You wouldn’t believe. And Arkham gets new showers installed today. Going to keep eye on things, be there in case. Sleeping at penthouse after. Do not disturb. Will patrol from there tonight. Breakfast briefing tomorrow at Pearl’s. You’ll like. —B.
Figuring eleven was the earliest he could possibly consider a breakfast briefing on such a schedule, Selina knocked on his door at 11:15 and was surprised to see he meant it literally. He’d obtained a special pan to grill Japanese omelets, and as he beat the eggs expertly with chopsticks, he half-jokingly explained his ritual with the time lock from a Zurich bank vault. Also that Tommy was a better cook than Bruce for reasons he couldn’t quite explain, he was just more comfortable in the kitchen somehow. Finally, he emphasized that neither the food nor the lock was a cat burglar-to-cat burglar hint about Japan or Zurich. If he was going to allude to anything from his past to kick off the briefing, it would be the London School of Economics, but he didn’t think either of them wanted to face a full English breakfast.
Selina could only smile as they took their plates to settle in front of his long belfry viewscreen, remembering his words: As soon as I feel that click of understanding, the box inside my mind unlocks and I begin integrating whatever I’ve learned into everything else I know. As soon as I feel the click, I start adapting the technique to make it my own… Clearly, it happened. The box opened, Thomas Pearl was the criminal Bruce would have become if he’d gone that way.
“Alright, Project: Robin Hood,” he said as the screen ran through its start-up routine. “The way you first talked about it on that flight from Rio, showing lesser minds what it would really look like, it was clear you understood the complexities involved. Someone like Luthor, nothing in his orbit is simple. No operations that emanate from him, nothing he designs or generates, and no systems that form around him…”
“Look in the mirror, stud.”
“Yes,” Bruce nodded seriously. “What you said that day confirmed what I was seeing when you went after Demon. It reassured me that you were up to the sessions we were about to start introducing you to the financial and operational complexities of my holdings. You have a head for it, Selina, and that’s good because what we need to get into for this heist is a little… advanced. I think the easiest place to begin is actually in Rio: that parting shot Luthor took at the restaurant, inviting you into his vulture fund. It’s a bigger compliment than it seems once you understand how the vulture fits into the landscape of his empire.
“You understand the basic concept of course: a vulture preys on debt-ridden companies and economies, buying up debt at around thirty cents on the dollar. It takes out a kind of insurance on the likely-to-fail debt so when it does fail, the ‘insurer’ has to buy it from them at full value. Buy at thirty percent, sell at one hundred, but that’s only the beginning. They can also make side bets if the insurance will have to pay out. And side bets on the side bets… on the side bets, on the side bets. This is your first opening to express amazement that what you do is illegal while all of this is perfectly legit.”
“Like robbing the Wayne-sponsored event, that joke has been done. I’ll pass,” Selina said pleasantly. “What I’m hearing so far is there are ways of going all in if you think something is going to go bad. If I want to buy up Falstaff’s debt, I’m limited by how much he’s actually borrowed. But pile on the insurance and side bets…”
“There can be billions on the line, resting on a fairly modest loan of a few million.”
“Like an inverted pyramid,” Selina said with a glint that Bruce recognized.
“Your feline instinct for mischief hit on the perfect example, yes. Not the stablest of structures, but it sets the table for an exponential return on investment. Now let’s see where those profits go—”
“Wait, before you go on, is there any chance you’re going to tell me the bottom of Lex’s pyramid is the kind of loans we were talking about at Bar Drôme, secured with collateral that’s, you know, the sort of thing I’d steal?”
“Can I ask what prompted that question?” Bruce graveled.
“Never mind, I’ll tell you later. Just, go on, ‘let’s see where those profits go.’”
“Forget I spoke. I’m pulling a you. Bad kitty, white belt. You talk; I listen.”
Bruce considered the possibility of a dimensional leak and an alternate universe Selina replacing his own. Rather than make an ill-advised joke, he pointed to the viewscreen and the group photo on Barry Hobbs’s yacht. Selina was all but cropped out, and there were barely perceptible white corners denoting hotspots around the faces of Hobbs, John Blaine, Dean Rhoads and Matt Montrasante. An enlarged detail from a different photo at the same event highlighted Bratsie Drammen, and a final corporate headshot of the type displayed on websites revealed the woman Barry was lunching with at the Modern.
“What isn’t paid out to investors goes into Prosperity Partners, the dark money run by Blaine,” he said, momentarily enlarging his portion of the photo. “It buys the lobbyists, congressmen and legislation for whatever Lex is into at the moment. Example: right now he’s deep into coltan and wolframite for his remade tech divisions. Congressman Beck, head of the Ethical Sourcing Caucus has twenty-eight colleagues who need to get reelected. They or their PACs get donations from Prosperity, but they’ll get their marching orders from Dean. His family’s law firm fronts for Luthor; LexCorp is his main client. At his direction, they make sure Luthor’s preferred sources of those crucial ores—read: the cheap ones—remain off lists condemning the human rights and environmental practices that make them cheap.
“Then there’s the garden variety awarding contracts to a private mercenary outfit he invests in, rolling back regulations affecting his subsidiaries, one-off problems with a shipment stopped at customs, and so on. But most importantly, above everything else, they protect the vulture fund’s interests: preventing a bankrupt state from restructuring its debt in a way that wouldn’t trigger the fund’s payday, for example. It’s a vicious and extremely profitable cycle, and the two funds are the heart of the system—the twin ventricles taking money in and pumping it back out at multiple points on its journey through the cycle.
“Matt Montrasante is the inside man at LexCorp…” Again, the detail enlarged as Bruce moused over the hot spot. “He coordinates all these outside interests: Prosperity, Paulson-Hobbs, the law firm Rhoads, Rhoads, and Mann. Acts as a buffer with Luthor and probably crafts most of their political strategy. And that rounds out your foursome on the yacht. The other two are Constance Rafkin, Barry’s lunch at the MoMA, she runs the vulture fund, and Bratsie Drammen, technically LexCorp Financial but he’s really Luthor’s personal money manager. Top man in the country when it comes to tax havens, and there isn’t a Kobra, Injustice Gang or Secret Society that doesn’t use methods he devised to build a clandestine base or channel funds to a new operation.”
Selina considered this, then bit her lip.
“Refresh me, Barry does what exactly?”
“Each entity’s interaction with Wall Street is through Paulson Hobbs,” Bruce said grimly. “Barry’s firm handles the debt purchase, the credit default swaps—that’s the ‘insurance’ I mentioned, bundling hundreds of those ‘policies’ into investment portfolios, then making the ‘side bets’ on those portfolios and bundling them...”
“So he’s hired help,” Selina said bluntly. “He’s getting a fat commission each time the money moves, each time the… heart beats, as you put it. But you saw Luthor when he invited me to the fund, that wasn’t the CEO of LexCorp. That was the guy who gives policy to Grodd. The vulture fund is his, and he doesn’t look on a mere functionary as a colleague, a partner or a peer. No matter how much money’s involved.”
“I’m not sure where you’re going with this,” Bruce said.
“I’m not either,” she murmured. “But it might be an opportunity. Robbing from the rich is easy. I thought of a dozen ways to pull that off when I was playing with this idea, to do it in sufficiently theatrical style to send the message. There are a dozen ways—there are a hundred—I think what you’re about to propose might even be close to something I came up with. But ‘giving to the poor,’ that is not a fridge-magnet simple undertaking. If, in Barry’s mind, he’s working with Lex while Lex knows he’s working for him, that might open some possibilities.”
Bruce grunted, then his lip began to curl into the malevolent smile that gave Clark nightmares.
“What is it you think I’m about to propose?” he asked.
She reached for her purse and pulled out a thick prospectus.
“Matt Montrasante gave me that at Barry’s viewing party. It’s the vulture fund: East End Holdings. He changed the name the day he got back from Rio, I checked. Not really the F-you it would be from some people. More like he’s letting me know that he saw me coming. ‘I knew you’d express interest once you got some distance from Wayne to pursue it privately.’
“That’s why Barry lit up as soon as I said I was coming without you, why Matt had this prospectus with him on the yacht, why Blaine was so attentive. He changes the name to East End the day after he invites me in—and then you tell me this fund is basically an inverted pyramid. I can’t help but think that the base, the crucial bottom stone, is a loan secured with something I would steal. And will steal, that I’m meant to steal to start all the dominos falling and get Lex his payday.”
“You think he’s setting you up?” Bruce asked sharply.
“No, he really doesn’t hate me the way he does you or Spitcurl. Even when I was beating the hell out of him that time, screwing with all his assets in Gotham, he wanted me dead, sure, but there was no blood going to it. With Lex it’s like that old Godfather wag: it’s just business, it’s not personal. And if I’m understanding you about all these insurance policies and side bets built on a few core loans, and if it is the kind of collateral I’d take that’s propping the whole thing up, then he’d want it to fall at a time of his choosing. Once I’m an investor, I’m sure he figures I’ll do the honors taking the critical piece.”
“Pieces. I simplified a bit; it doesn’t come down to one guy financing a new fleet for his airline with a Monet. These are large, diverse portfolios with more than one critical loan at the root. But the idea is the same. And you did it before with the Justice League plans: three pieces in a single night when he needed it. If you did refuse, he could always get someone else. You’ll still profit like mad as an investor; you could hardly roll over on him.”
“Which brings us to your proposal,” Selina said with a malicious smile that rivaled his. “You said the two central funds, Prosperity Partners and East End Holdings, are ventricles of a heart. We’re going to give LexCorp a heart attack.”
To be continued…