How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
January 17th, A-minus 4
“I told ya all I know, I sweulgh—” Snook’s naturally raspy wheeze was already growing thick with blood and snot when this last blow doubled him over, retching hopelessly. ”I told ya everything,” he whined. “Just let me die now.”
The gloved fist that held him by his hair released it abruptly and Snook crumpled into a whimpering ball. Batman thought it would be a kindness to deliver a final nerve pinch and give the miserable snitch a few hours of oblivion. He was halted by a dark boot positioned between him and the cowering Snook.
“You mind telling me what you’re doing here?” Nightwing asked simply. “Snook’s a very accommodating fellow in the normal course of things, aren’t you, buddy. It isn’t necessary to–” as he moved away, Batman delivered a brutal kick, knocking Snook into the wall.
“–to do that,” Nightwing concluded. Dick had screwed up Hell Month right out of the chute, and another scene with Bruce was the last thing he wanted. A scene with Batman was the very last thing he wanted. But he couldn’t overlook this. Hell Month was Hell Month, and the Gotham stooges might be in hiding, but that did not justify Batman coming to Bludhaven and beating his best snitch nearly into a coma.
“Look what you’ve done there, that arm—that’s 14 stitches at least—that I’m gonna be paying for.”
Batman looked at Nightwing defiantly. With frightening economy of movement his arm shot out and lifted the helpless Snook off the ground, dragging a bleeding arm along the ragged brick wall until it was probably cut open to 16 or 18 stitches and looked even worse.
“WHAT GIVES?” Nightwing screamed.
“Nothing that concerns you. Stay out of it,” was the only reply.
“Happy to,” Nightwing answered. “Just keep it out of my town.”
Batman kicked Snook into the wall again. Glared again. And vanished.
“January 17th,” Nightwing muttered. “A-minus 4.”
The absence of a third place at Ra’s al Ghul’s dinner table assured Selina that Talia would not be joining them. All the evidence seemed to confirm Ra’s assertions that his daughter was not in residence at the compound, that she had no role in his present operations, and that they were, in fact, not on speaking terms at the present time.
It sounded juicy: Geraldo in Hell. Today on Sally Jessie Raphael, family squabbles among the undead. “My daughter let my enemy out of his holding cell and now he’s stymied my plans to conquer the earth.” But Selina couldn’t get to any of these juicy details because Ra’s wouldn’t get past the part where Talia didn’t return his phone calls.
Selina eyed her host, trying to get a handle on him. It was cute in a way, the megalomaniac complaining that his daughter never called, never wrote, the criminal mastermind that couldn’t get a phone message past a secretary…. Still, this man was a dangerous power. Everybody said so.
Well, not quite everybody.
Selina smirked at this thought. Then, noticing that Ra’s was looking at her, she let the smirk morph easily into a smile and nodded at the pheasant. Ra’s smiled back, and Selina was satisfied. He was another rogue, and he could be handled like the others could. This one prided himself on being more civilized than common brawling villains.
“Come now, Catwoman,” he had said “you’re not going to be priggish like the heroes, are you, and insist on a dank cell in the basement. You’re to be my guest for the few hours or days until the Detective arrives. You may as well enjoy a proper bedroom and a good meal.”
“All right, then,” Selina had thought, “humor him and handle him.” She was not one to insist on a dank cell in what Ra’s called the basement but she was sure anyone else would call a dungeon. He wanted to treat this like a dinner party instead of a kidnapping, that’d be just fine. Pass the potatoes, father of demonspawn.
“An emissary of Ra’s Al Ghul has been in and out of Metropolis at least a dozen times this year! Did you NOT KNOW, or did you NOT THINK IT WAS WORTH MENTIONING!”
Superman disliked confrontations, particularly with colleagues. Man of Steel Invulnerability not withstanding, he was raised by soft-spoken farmers who taught him that reasonable people could talk out their differences without resorting to:
“I LIKE TO THINK THAT IF SOME FLUNKY OF LUTHOR’S STARTED RUNNING A UPS SERVICE OUT OF GOTHAM, I WOULD GIVE YOU A HEADS UP!”
“No,” Superman answered carefully, “I’d say if an agent of Luthor’s set up shop in Gotham, you’d pound him into a 1 x 1 cube and send him to me 2nd day ground.”
“You think you’re in a position to criticize how I work when you’ve been HARBORING A MINION OF RA’S AL GHUL!”
“I’m monitoring the situation. Waiting to see if something would happen.”
“It’s happened. Tell me what you know.”
“What? What’s happened?”
In the spirit of Hell Month, A-minus-4, the Man of Steel caved like a cardboard UPS carton in the rain.
The flight to Mongolia was torture. Batman was adept at juggling many thoughts at once, planning for countless contingencies. Such mental dexterity made it possible to relive a dozen moments from his past with Selina while visualizing a dozen grim scenarios the future might hold.
”The easy way or the hard way, Catwoman”…”Why Batman, how hard do you want it to get?”
What if he lost her? She could be dead already for all he knew.
”You’re part of the night, just like me.”…”You’re a thief.”
Dead like his parents…
“When I was ten my parents were shot to death in a smalltime mugging. Happened right in front of me.”
That was a bigger trust moment than telling her his real name… it was bigger than the L-word, and it was certainly bigger than knowing she didn’t take some trinket from the historical museum. Everything he is, was, and would ever be stemmed from that one fact, and he told her. And now Ra’s had her. She could be dead already…like his parents. Like Jason…
“The life we’ve chosen, it’s not easy. And it’s not safe…”
It’s not safe. It’s not safe. It’s not safe. She could be dead already.
“If we haven’t acted on our feelings so far, I don’t think anyone can say it’s the result of laziness or cowardice on our part”…“I don’t know about that. There’s a difference between the risk of getting shot or running into a burning building, and risking getting your heart broken into tiny little pieces and handed to you.”
”The easy way or the hard way, Catwoman?”…”Why Batman, how hard do you want it to get?”
Alone again. He’d be alone again. He opened himself up—he smiled, he called her kitten, he said the L-Word, he allowed himself a happiness he didn’t deserve and now the cosmos was rising like a serpent to swallow him whole.
HOW HARD DO YOU WANT IT TO GET?
When Batman arrived at the DEMON compound, he found them having dinner.
He’d been frantic… and they were at dinner. He found Gotham snitches were in hiding for Hell Month, so he’d gone to Bludhaven. He’d beaten Nightwing’s pet contact practically into a coma, then had words with ‘Wing, then had more words with Clark when it turned out the Boy Scout was holding back information on DEMON activity in Metropolis. He’d been… scared… scared for her and scared of losing her…
And they were at dinner.
Comparing notes, from the sound of it, about the slanders of the American media:
“It’s the visuals I most object to,” Ra’s was saying, “they made me look like a villain.”
“No, no,” Selina answered, “It wasn’t a flattering picture, I’ll give you that. But the character assassination is much worse. They had me stupid, homicidal, psychotic, and playing with guns, and don’t get me started on what they’re saying about me now.”
“A minor libel, in my opinion, compared to the visuals. Really, my dear, it’s fair to say you are a stunningly beautiful woman, and that creature depicted in the newspapers denies you your most magnificent characteristics… Wouldn’t you agree, Detective?”
Batman preferred picking his own moment to reveal himself. He stepped out from behind a service partition with hatred in his heart. Ra’s continued addressing him, enjoying his triumph immensely:
“Indeed, I nearly executed the agent who brought her here. For this bewitching creature simply could not be that Jane Doe I read of in the Gotham Post.”
“And you had your agents kidnap her because…?” Batman asked ominously.
“As a means to secure your presence, of course. That is how one makes an appointment to see you, Detective, by taking one of your inner circle.”
“It’s beneath you to call my secretary?”
Ra’s wasn’t going to acknowledge this. He turned back to Selina, but continued to address Batman:
“This one is an improvement over those impudent boys, incidentally. They would not have made very pleasant dinner companions, not after our last meeting.”
Batman smirked unpleasantly.
“That’s why you took Selina? Because she wasn’t there when you made a fool of yourself over Black Canary?”
“I heard all about that,” Selina shot out. She was irked at being discussed as if she wasn’t there, and she wanted in on the confrontation. “They told me! Got a little worked up after that last dip in the pit, I take it.”
“It happens sometimes. My men overreacted; they had not seen it before.”
“Because you killed off all those who saw it the last time?” Batman ventured.
“The Italian civil wars killed them, Detective; it was 1420. In any case,” he turned back to Selina, “whatever you may have heard, my dear, you did not make an issue of it. This, I appreciate. No, you cannot escape being ‘the civil one’ in this particular instance. The boys’ mocking would have been quite insupportable.”
Selina was taken aback. The
No one had ever accused Catwoman of such a thing.
No one had ever accused Catwoman of such a thing.
“What do you want, Ra’s?” Batman spat in a most uncivil tone.
“The Asian Properties Wayne Enterprises acquired in a corporate takeover two months ago.”
Bruce stared, and Ra’s continued.
“I’m perfectly willing to pay fair market value, and I wish to make sure you won’t refuse simply because it is I who am asking.”
“That’s the most ridiculous load of bull I’ve ever heard, even from you. What do you want?”
Ra’s raised an eyebrow, then tried a new approach.
“Perhaps I was curious and wished to meet the lady?”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT, RA’S?”
“My daughter is sure to come to me sooner or later and ask me to intervene, and I took this opportunity to…”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT, RA’S?”
“Detective, I will thank you not to bellow like
a bad actor in my house—”
“RA’S! WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
There was a long silence, then the truth:
“I want it understood that I was not involved in my daughter’s attempts to frame this young woman.”
Selina’s eyes grew wide at the statement. She was ready to do some yelling herself, but Batman was now calm. He had sat down at the table, and poured a glass of wine from the pitcher. His tone became conversational:
“Oh, I know that, Ra’s. Cat’s eye crown? Please. You couldn’t be that obvious if you tried.”
“Exactly. This is very embarrassing, Detective. I truly don’t know what to say.”
Selina was sputtering now…
“Oh, I can imagine,” Batman was saying to the man who, though an enemy, his greatest, was nevertheless a mastermind and a criminal genius. “None of it rubbed off, did it? You, then Luthor. She didn’t pick up… anything.”
“That was a favor to me, you know. Lex taking her. I contributed more than a little to his campaign. You see, I was proud last time she left, finally showing a little spunk, I thought. A promising sign. But look what she goes and does: still uses my network to spy on your butler, still uses my network to stage this cat-crime, still uses my money to buy her penthouse in Metropolis…”
“Truly! But my name, that she won’t use. Beneath her! She said my book was an embarrassment and now that she’s an executive she couldn’t be associated with something so lowbrow and florid. I mean, really, Detective, ‘florid.’ From Talia! I don’t have to tell you…”
“Excuse me,” Selina interrupted, but was ignored.
Batman was nodding and said, “For that matter, the new name—Talia Head? What is this a James Bond movie?”
“Excuse me,” Selina tried again.
“Indeed. Don’t think all the guards here aren’t having fun with that one. They don’t say it in front of me—only you would do that—but I know what’s said in my house.”
Barbara’s call for “a little estrogen solidarity” echoed, inexplicably, in Selina’s mind. There was no power on earth that would make her defend the demonspawn…
…Ra’s was now announcing that he got a bum rap with this chauvinism charge—he had no particular insistence on a male heir…
There was no power on earth that would make Selina defend or feel sorry for the demonspawn.
…Ra’s was saying he let Talia think that to avoid hurting her feelings. She wasn’t up to the job. Just look at her performance to date….
There was no power that would make Selina defend the demonspawn, but just to be safe, she’d wait in the Batwing.
As she left, she heard Batman proposing a deal: He was taking steps to get “the little pest” out of their hair. If Ra’s would keep her there, it would be known that DEMON had no part in the Catwoman frame-up. And he’d throw in those Asian Properties at cost.
“Men are pigs,” Selina muttered, as she opened the hatch of the Batwing… to find a DEMON flunky trying to stuff himself in a small hassock beneath the passenger seat.
“America! You are the guests from America! Basketball! Superman! Big Mac and Fries!”
Not a time to split hairs about whether she was a guest or a prisoner, Selina thought. She confirmed her country of origin. She assured him that Star Wars Episode 2 was not out yet. She could supply no first hand information about Superman or whether the Metropolis Marvels made the playoffs.
“Swept the series against Cleveland, playing the Star City Rebels for the championship a week from Sunday,” a deep voice intoned. And Omar became the first minion of Ra’s Al Ghul to smile on first meeting Batman.
January 19th, A-minus 2
LEXCREEP: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A DERANGED PSYCHOPATH TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS…
“And if it gets me fired, I don’t care anymore,” Moira muttered, saving the new phrase to her screensaver. Miss Head no longer screeched or threw things when the Gotham papers didn’t contain the news she was looking for. She just grumbled that she’d been too subtle, thought he’d be smart enough to figure it out. Then she’d scream at Moira because the faxes from R&D were smudged. A suit’s mood swings were part of the job, though. The truth was, Moira missed Omar. She missed how nothing fazed him. The most outrageous details of her day at Lexcorp he shrugged off as the things that go on among suits. None of it could touch him. Once he left a room, whatever had gone on there had no reality for him. He never once complained about a bad day.
She also missed showing him the city, seeing simple things through his eyes. He took nothing for granted. What a gift to be like that, to take pleasure in a gyro on a sunny afternoon and not have the aftermath of a suit’s morning tantrum hanging round your neck all day.
“Good morning, Miss Moira,” a familiar accent intoned, “what is a de-rang pessy-chop-path?”
Moira looked up and beamed.
“That’s ‘deranged psychopath.’ It means a crazy suit. Like Miss Head.”
“You should not display such messages on your desk. It is very dangerous.”
“Oh, I don’t care. I can get another job. Although, if you’re going to be coming around again, I guess it wouldn’t be so bad to stick around.”
Omar shook his head ‘No’ but smiled as he did so.
“No, I will not be come round again. This is my last delivery here to the Great One’s daugh—” he caught himself and remembered he must speak as Americans speak. “To Miss Head.”
“Oh.” Moira looked crushed.
“But I will to be staying in Metropolis. I have, how do you say it, changed jobs. That is why this is last message.”
Moira looked much happier at this. She took the parcel, an audio cassette, to Miss Head with the rest of the day’s mail, then hurried back to the reception area to hear about Omar’s new circumstances. It turned out this last delivery was a favor to someone who pulled some strings and got him a job at the Daily Planet….
The sedate offices of LexCorp were suddenly shaken by an earsplitting scream.
..:: this is frankly embarrassing, Detective, I don’t know what to
say :: ..
Talia threw Lex Luthor’s priceless Pre-Columbian rattle at his antique Baccarat water pitcher. The cassette played on…
..:: none of it rubbed off, did it? :: ..
Her beloved’s voice. She threw a Faberge inkwell at a Picasso print.
..:: …a favor to me, Lex taking her… :: ..
..:: Talia Head? What is this a James Bond
movie? :: ..
..:: don’t need a male heir especially, but I need a competent one :: ..
Talia tore the cassette player’s plug from the wall and hurled it out the window… rather, she threw the player at the window—the shatterproof high-rise window—from whence it bounced onto the thick Persian carpet with an anti-climactic swudt. Failing to produce the satisfying sound of breaking glass, Talia pounded the player into the telephone until both were a pile of useless electronic giblets.
January 20th, A-minus 1
The unforeseen consequence of playing Romantic Chicken was that, by the end of it, Bruce and Selina found themselves in a dramatically more intimate relationship than either had consciously intended. Each step in the escalation had been real and heartfelt, but there was an undercurrent of responding to a dare. That element dissolved, for Selina, right around the words ‘never loved Talia.’
The new circumstances raised a delicate question, one more delicate than faces under a mask or what one was doing in the Summer of ’85…
Every night they had slept together, Bruce (or perhaps Batman) had had a nightmare. Occasionally he thrashed around but more often he groaned softly, clenched his fist, and pounded it into the blankets.
Every night they slept together… The implication was unmistakable. He’d taken Catwoman into his bed and some part of him would never forgive either of them. The dreams were growing worse the last few weeks, undoubtedly because of the new intimacy, Selina thought.
She should tell him—not let him sit there twisting his hand not even knowing why it was sore.
Yeah right, she thought, tell him. How would that go exactly: “Dear, you know you’re a few cards shy of a deck right? Guess what, I’m the cause. And by the way, have I called you a judgmental jackass recently?”
“Judgmental jackass” struck a chord…
…the unvarnished truth had worked fairly well up ‘til now.