Cassie Cain, aka Batgirl still disguised as the Firefly groupie Smoke, was uncertain how to proceed. Her initial training under the master assassin David Cain dictated that the mission objective superseded all other considerations. Her training under Batman taught that the safety of civilian bystanders was paramount. No undercover assignment was worth risking harm to the innocents of Gotham.
Although undertaken for personal reasons, her infiltration of the Iceberg Lounge was, in a manner of speaking, an undercover operation. Her objective, being close to her adored Gregory Brady, was defeated when she was attacked by Clayface, rescued by Poison Ivy, and her rescuer spirited her away—away from the Iceberg, away from Gregory—and towards Ivy’s lair in the wilds of Robinson Park.
Cassie didn’t want to leave the Iceberg, but she went along at first because she simply couldn’t find a way not to. Poison Ivy was being quite ridiculously helpful: brushing bits of Clayface dirt off her leotard, assuring her “the murdering fiend” hadn’t done her serious harm. This wasn’t the way the villains of Gotham were meant to behave to one such as her… then she realized that, in her disguise as a groupie, she appeared as one who admired them, who hoped to be recruited to work with them.
Nevertheless, Cassie refused at first, shaking her head “no” when Ivy offered to take her back to her lair.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” Ivy observed.
Again, Cassie shook her head.
“Did he knock the wind out of you?”
He had, so Cassie nodded yes. There seemed no reason to lie about it.
“Let’s have a drink then. A Cosmopolitan is what you need.”
It wasn’t. But a drink meant returning to the bar and Gregory, so Cassie nodded and went along. There she saw the villainous criminal menace Roxy Rocket, decked out in a tight new costume, throwing herself—positively throwing herself—at Greg Brady!
“Joker,” the slut cooed, “you worked for the Joker, how marvelous! That’s really the big time, Mr. G. Is it okay if I call you Mr. G?”
“Eh, it’s Giggles, ma’am, just Giggles,” he stammered, obviously embarrassed by the hussy’s brazen advances. “Or Greg, if you like,” he added with a wink that crushed Cassie’s hope that he was embarrassed. She turned her thoughts to the feasibility of tying Roxy’s hair to her motorcycle and dragging her through the streets.
“Disgusting,” Poison Ivy muttered, watching the pair. And Cassie began to realize that, for a villain, Ivy was much more insightful than the typical Gotham badguy. “Setting her cap for the new bartender, tsk, tsk, and all because Sly chased her and that got her noticed by the right people.”
Poison Ivy turned to Cassie and announced: “I have no desire to watch this disgusting exhibition, do you? Let’s at least split a cab. If you help me getting the, heh, fertilizer to my lair, I’ll give you a ride home.”
The objective of staying near Greg Brady was no longer an appealing one—certainly not if it meant witnessing what Ivy so rightly described as “the disgusting exhibition” with Roxy Rocket. And Cassie was somewhat curious what Poison Ivy intended to do with Clayface, and if it was something she, as a crimefighter, ought to prevent. So she nodded and followed Ivy out of the Iceberg Lounge. A mass of vines followed them, each holding fast to a large clump of brownish gray formerly known as the shape shifter Clayface.
Outside the lounge, Cassie detected the distinct smell of a misty jungle, sultry, warm, and slightly sweet. The cab that had been sitting idle snapped on its ON DUTY light and edged forward, stopping just before Poison Ivy when the IN SERVICE light popped on.
“Robinson Park,” Ivy ordered while the vines that held Clayface packed themselves into the trunk. “Same as last time.”
The driver merely gave a dazed nod. Cassie hesitated, but her training said the safety of innocent civilians took precedence over all other considerations. Clearly, this driver was in a diminished condition, in Poison Ivy’s thrall, and Batgirl should not abandon him to the villainess’s dark purpose.
In Robinson Park, the dark purpose became clear: Ivy was going home. The moment the taxi slowed to a stop, she ordered the cabman to open the trunk, and the vines unpacked themselves and their captive clumps of Clayface.
Hence Batgirl’s dilemma: should she stay with the incapacitated cabman and make sure he got home safely, or should she continue in her undercover capacity as Smoke and find out just what Poison Ivy was up to?
“You’re kidding,” Bruce turned his head to conceal a twitch that threatened to erupt into a full-blown smile—if not an actual laugh. He thought the better of it when he turned back, face composed, and saw the look on her face. Of all the times he’d faced Selina as Catwoman, there was only one occasion when he’d seen that particular expression. At the time, he’d totally misjudged its significance.
It was not good enough to stop Catwoman.
He saw her on the rooftop of the Vishnu Trust, heading uptown… He saw in an instant she had already hit her target and carried the proceeds in a small sack. He could tell by her movement it weighed less than twenty pounds… from her path, he traced back in his mind the direction from which she had come and deduced the target: Chamfers & Sons. Bearer Bonds. He wouldn’t learn until months later how she learned of Chamfers & Sons and the childlike faith they placed in their antiquated security. All he knew that night was she was at the top of her form: lithe, agile, fast, and bewitchingly beautiful… heedless as always… carefree… obviously not troubled by the tabloid reports of her capture and imprisonment.
Or so he thought.
It always seemed to play out the same with her. He drew a line, and she laughed at him. He laid down the law, and she pressed against him. He scowled, and she fingered the insignia on his costume. This time, it would be different. It was an experiment, he told himself, test and adjust. Change one thing on his end, and observe the result. He would alter his manner, just a little, and see how she’d respond.
He fired the grappler and swung northward to intercept her in… four buildings, the Dressily Complex. ‘Purrfect,’ he thought. The Dressily Roof was better lit than most, glowing with intermittent splashes of warm reds and cool blues from a huge animated billboard. Batman watched, fascinated, as the hues made the rich purple that wrapped her body flush pinker…then a deeper purple….then pinker…. He realized with horror that she was now on the roof with him. She’d seen him. She’d stopped. She was standing there… They were… seconds or… longer? minutes? into the encounter and he hadn’t spoken a word.
What was worse, he felt himself smiling. The sight of her like that, not laughing, not taunting him, just standing… It felt like a Joker grin, the irresistible pull on stripped muscles through the cheek and jaw when exposed to even a small amount of those horrid toxins. Selina would eventually tell him it was only a twitch, but at the time, it felt like Bruce Wayne’s most lecherous playboy leer.
To save face, he made eye contact and gravelled, “I thought you were in jail.”
That’s when he saw the look, the same look that bored into him now in response to “you’re kidding.” The first time, he merely thought her startled, stunned in fact, for he was able to recover the bonds without a fight. But he thought no more about it. He had no idea until weeks later that that one simple twitch lit a fuse that would explode into Cat Tales. The stage show changed their lives, but Bruce was still wary of the trigger look’s reappearance. A fuse was burning. Because he said “you’re kidding,” a feline fuse was burning, and he meant to find it and defuse it—or at the very least, detonate it in an unpopulated area.
“You’re not kidding,” he said carefully, “Never mind, my mistake, I understand now.”
“Yes,” he lied.
“I understand everything but the part about the closet.”
“It’s all about the closet. The closet is making a noise. There’s something moving in there.”
“And you sent in the cats on a search and destroy mission.”
“Cat singular, Nutmeg doesn’t go in for that sort of thing. Whiskers is the hunter, but he ran out like something scared him. That’s got to be one big-ass mouse.”
Again, Bruce felt the sharp tug of Joker toxin pulling at his lip. He hid it (he hoped) behind a thoughtful massaging of his chin. People said he had no sense of humor. JLA, Rogues, Dick, Gordon, Alfred… even Selina implied it from time to time. Selina, who was standing here telling him Catwoman was squeamish about fishing a mouse out of her closet. She stood toe to toe with Batman, with Ra’s Al Ghul, with Prometheus… she modeled herself, not just her costume but her whole mindset, on cats… and she was freaking out over a mouse?
The Joker toxin won; he smiled. It was one of Bruce’s more charming playboy smiles, and he hoped that would count for something. He was careful not to let even a hint of Batman creep into his voice as he said, “You want me to take care of it, Kitten?”
In his new role as potting soil, Matt Hagen was philosophical:
The phrase “feet of clay” is biblical. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar dreamt of a statue with a head of gold, but made of cheaper materials lower down. At the very bottom, the feet were made of iron and clay. The statue was struck on the feet, its weakest point, and shattered.
Fools, Matt Hagen reflected, have peculiar ideas about what denotes strength.
Consider Croc: undisputed arm wrestling champion of the Iceberg Lounge, 257 bouts, undefeated. No one would ever conceive Catwoman or Poison Ivy challenging the mutant steroid case in a physical confrontation. And yet, in terms of true strength, indeed, by any measure of clout and of raw power in the Rogue community, both women were heavyweights, while Croc was a ninety-pound weakling.
The strength of clay does not lie in being able to support a 40 foot gold statue. It lies in its inner resources, its malleability and its patience.
Poison Ivy was no different from Cameron, the director whose GhostRider trilogy skyrocketed Matt Hagen to fame. Cameron was what is politely termed “a gifted director,” Hollywood parlance for a delusional narcissist prone to psychotic tantrums. Matt learned early to keep his head down, weather the storm, meekly agree to whatever was asked for, and then blithely play the scene however he wanted. At the end of the day, the director would see a full crew running into overtime, see four days of costly F/X shooting on the horizon, see the studio scrutinizing his budget, and decide Matt’s way would work fine.
The Gotham underworld’s “gifted director” Poison Ivy, the photosynthetically-crazed zealot that still reviled him for a stupid little bag of potpourri, had already forgotten about him. She was busy talking to the girl from the bar… She must be lonely, Hagen reflected, to bother bringing a groupie to her lair… So much the better. Lonely. Talking. Engrossed in the conversation. He would wait a while longer, to make sure she was wholly occupied and then… he would simply ooze away… And these miserable weeds sucking the calcium from his body would starve. That would fix her.
Batman knew his enemies well. Some were easier to predict than others. Catwoman was always an enigma. But even she could be counted on to respond in certain ways to certain events and stimuli.
Selina was a cat in every sense: she was strong, independent, and above all, proud.
If she thought she had appeared weak, if she needed to ask for help, if her pride… if her fur was ruffled, she would compensate. She would make a point of proving it a fluke. The night of their first date, Batman knew she would strike out with a bit of felonious bravado. She’d want to prove—to him and to herself—that she was still a cat and a thief. He anticipated her target, and left a note and a gift. It ended well.
Bruce was just as certain now that the mouse would demand a reaction.
“You’re kidding” he had said when she told him. It was a chance remark, uttered without thought or weighing of consequences. Catwoman spooked by a mouse in her closet, “you’re kidding.”
But the fuse was burning. She freaked out, he made a chance remark, and now there was going to have to be a demonstration that: despite whatever ‘fraidy cat episode might have occurred, she was still all she thought herself to be.
Like the jewelry store she went to burgle on their first date, Bruce was sure it had a better chance of ending well if he could predict it and take steps.
Poison Ivy was finding her new companion most agreeable. She listened. Harley never listened like this. Her beloved plants were good listeners, of course, but it had to be said that, on some subjects, their understanding was limited. This Smoke was human. Like all animals, that made her an inferior creature, but she could grasp the pangs of the heart which the callous oaks of Riverside Park did not.
Indeed, the girl had a pang of her own from the look of it. Why anyone would devote themselves to the likes of Firefly was a mystery, but still, it was an experience on which to build.
“You’re young,” Ivy told her frankly. “And when you are young, they call those feelings a crush. It is a good word. It means to squash, squeeze, press, mash, pound, defeat, or rout. We should keep that word. It would prevent so many false expectations. But we don’t. Once the pimples clear up, we start calling it ‘love,’ and that’s when the root rot sets in. All those ridiculous romance trollers that think every man and woman are a couple, they come together, fall in love, get married, have children, live happily ever after. Root rot.”
“…” was all Cassie could think to reply.
“I had a crush once,” Ivy continued, encouraged, “After Harvey, before Two-Face. He was a nice boy, for a human. He volunteered at Wilderness Warriors, so committed. ‘We are going to save a million square feet of rainforest by the end of the year,’ he would say. He was called Allaine. Everybody knew him because he always wore his University of Maine sweatshirt. ‘Remember, it’s Allaine from Maine’ he would say. It was light blue and dark blue, school colors, which brought out his eyes very nicely. And he was very tall.” She paused, then sighed. “He’s dead now,” she added flatly.
Cassie continued to listen.
You can’t tell that man anything. I am the expert on cats. And I explained—in language so clear and plain it could not be misunderstood—that there are two schools of thought in the cat world regarding mice:
#1: the mouser view goes like this: YUMMY!
#2: the princess view, the Nutmeg view, which also happens to be my view is this: Sitting here on my cushion, the one strategically selected to compliment the color of my spots, if pointed to a mouse will simply look up at you as if to say “and this concerns me….how?”
But you can’t tell him any of that!
Yes, I am Catwoman. Yes, I am a predator. Yes, I am the proud owner of an ocelot, several leopards, lynxes, caracals, servals, cougars, panthers and a tiger. And YES, I didn’t want to be the one to go into the closet and kill the little bugger if I could get anyone else to do it for me. And after Whiskers—who FLED (that has to be one scary mouse!)—Bruce was my next choice. He just happened to be there, so why not? Tell me that, huh? Why not? Why not at least ask?
It’s not that I’m especially terrified of mice (although there was an hour with Ratcatcher once upon a dark and stormy night that I’d rather forget). But I really don’t like going in that closet. I don’t like routing around in reminders of the past. I don’t even know why I keep most of that junk, but I’m sure not interested in finding out.
But can you tell him any of that? Of course not. He’d just wind up saying the closet is a hellmouth and my moving into the manor is a perfect excuse to clean it out.
“That’s why he was so committed to the cause,” Poison Ivy continued the sad tale of Allaine from Maine, “he was terminal. It wasn’t love of nature that made him so determined to save the rainforest; it was a mark, something he could leave behind. The rat… the miserable two-timing rat…”
This is how Poison Ivy expressed the pain of a bitter irony: she had an immune system that shrugged off the deadliest poisons, and she fell for a man who had, by the end, no immune system at all.
“And that’s when I swore off men,” Ivy concluded, “an unreliable gender. Can’t be depended on. Oh, I know what you’re going to say: What about Two-Face?”
Cassie blinked. She was not going to say any such thing.
“That’s another matter entirely. Just sex. No emotional entanglements whatsoever. It’s long over anyway, but even before it was, I had no feelings for the man. He was a conquest when he was District Attorney, nothing more, and he is still nothing but a conquest.”
“No man can resist me, you know.”
“Remember the taxi driver?”
“Obviously, I can have Two-Face back any time I wish. I need only subject him to my lure.”
“He will be a slave to his own lust.”
“You’re right, that would be cheating.”
“Maybe I could make him jealous!”
The feline fuse was burning.
After I left Selina’s apartment, I went home, then down to the cave. I thought the logs of our old encounters might shed some light on this.
I should have realized it was all too recent. Only days ago, I had picked her up at the airport, dropped her at her apartment, then came to the cave to scrutinize the logs for the ritual… to do it all again—her apartment to the cave to the logs—and then read about her, well, I couldn’t concentrate. My mind kept drifting away from the events in the log and back to the more recent scene… with her and the logs and the cave… I couldn’t afford to get bogged down in that now. I needed to study the past, work out what she would do.
So I left the logs and suited up. It was still an hour before my first patrol, but this time of year, it gets dark early. I settled on the rooftop of Sterling National Bank. Next door to Cartier and three floors taller, this spot affords the best view of the famous jeweler’s rooftop. Cartier… Catwoman’s favorite. She considers it our first rooftop… December 18th. Feline logic, there’s no arguing with it. Our first encounter was October 10th on top of the Gotham Central Train Station. After that, there were six more meetings before Cartier in December: bank vaults, art galleries, museums, but none of them count for some reason…
I will admit, though only to myself, that I used her back in those days. She was a welcome relief from the insanity. She was an escape from the demented clowns and the bisected psyches, a dose of relative reality in my surreal nightlife. I remember every encounter, every run-in with her. I hold those memories in a special place in my mind, stored away like hidden treasure: my nights with Catwoman.
There were those nights—those nights when I seemed to be losing the battle, those nights when it seemed like every step I took forward, the city would take two steps back—when I needed a release. Subconsciously—I don’t ever recall doing it purposefully—I would search for her. When I felt lost or frustrated or fed-up with everything, I would glide aimlessly from rooftop to rooftop to find solace in my city, only to discover myself on Museum Row or the diamond district, the park-front condos or this roof with the eagle’s nest view of Cartier… all her normal haunts… or else in some neighborhood where I suspected she kept a lair… anywhere I might run into her. She rarely disappointed. Eventually, I’d catch a glimpse of that purple, bounding across a roof or balancing on a balcony, and I’d swing into action.
The fights were physical to be sure, but not overly violent, never vicious. In all these years, she was the only one I ever pulled a punch for. I’d forgo furious jabs and kicks for more grapple-style moves: judo tosses, wrestling grabs, blocks and holds. Anything that involved extended physical contact. More effective with her, I told myself. And it was true. I knew she knew how to fight, that much was obvious. She could hold her own against anyone in any style of confrontation. Yet when I grabbed her, putting her in a hold that had six different counters, she would pause. She would let me hold the maneuver a little longer than necessary. Then, when she finally did counter, she would pick the move that, while not necessarily the most efficient, was the one that forced her body momentarily closer to mine before breaking free. Her counters always involved a little more “incidental contact” than necessary; an errant hand, a snaking thigh, her chest pressing hard against my own while her lips pressed in dangerously close to mine.
Then she would break free and run, leaving me standing alone on the rooftop, my mind swimming. The chase was on. Our little game of cat and… bat. Perhaps I stalled a little longer than necessary. Maybe I’d take the route that let me watch her lithe body spring and twist… from roof to fire escape to alley to roof…. High above the city streets, she was truly magnificent to behold. Eventually, I would catch up; I’d land on a rooftop just as she made the other side of it. I’d call out, tell her to stop, and unlike her other… compatriots, she would actually listen. She’d stop, her hip cocking to the side ever so slightly, and then turn… slowly… so slowly, making sure to give me an eyeful of that profile, the city lights dancing around her like a thousand twinkling stars. Then she’d start to move… toward me… not threateningly or menacingly, but surely predatory. She’d have that sly smile as she sauntered towards me, her whole body alive with movement. She’d always make some comment (“Well, now you’ve got me, Dark Knight. What are you going to do with me?”) that I would reply to with a growl or a glare. Then she would be on me, so close, that smell of her skin, vanilla and lavender, invaded my senses. Then came the touch: a light teasing along the edge of the cowl, a slow claw down my arm or a gentle fiddle with the edge of the cape. Or possibly even the worst… and best… move of all, the one move that would thrill and numb me into a feverish daze. She’d come in close, her hand slowly raising up to my chest, and my heart would leap into my throat as her fingers danced over the emblem, lightly caressing the oval, slowly tracing the outline of the bat… I’m sure there’s something obnoxiously Freudian about that, but I long ago decided to ignore it.
That’s when The Bat would take over. I’d reach up and forcefully grab her arms, growling something about that being “enough.” She’d smile wickedly, break free of my grasp and launch off the roof and into the night. I wouldn’t follow that time; the game was through. We’d go our separate ways, knowing we’d return to play again another night.
To be fair, it wasn’t always like that. There were nights when she toyed with me, trying to steal my attention away long enough to kick a knapsack of loot off the roof. There were the nights when she frustrated me beyond belief. She had this insidious knack: she could infuriate me and turn me on at the same time. And she knew it. She’d come at me with her defiant independence, her cavalier attitude and her undeniable sexuality. She’d banter and prod at me, trying for any reaction she could get. I may have remained stoic on the outside, but internally I was screaming to grab her and kiss her, or hit her, or both at the same time. It was those nights I’d end up going a few rounds with Strategic Self-mutating Defensive Regimen 4 before heading off to the shower and bed.
Regardless of the nature of the confrontation, I always ended up frustrated, excited, happy, anxious, and furious—all at the same time. It has long been said that emotions can get in the way, interfering with your ability to perform your duty. Catwoman did affect my emotions, on so many levels. But I don’t recall that ever hindering me.
…except possibly in the sense that I let her get away…
But subconsciously, that was the price I was willing to pay for what she gave me, for all that she did for me. She made me feel things I’d tried to forget, tried to suppress in my role as the city’s defender. In a word, she made me feel… alive.
With a start, I realized it was time for patrol. It was six minutes past time to begin patrol. I’d been on that roof for an hour, and I hadn’t accomplished a thing. This wasn’t meant to be a stroll down memory lane, it was meant to determine exactly what Selina might do after the mouse incident to demonstrate that she was still as much a cat as she ever was… Oh… of course… I could see the answer clearly then, not because of the hour’s thought I’d given it, but because it moved, shifted actually, three floors beneath me, on the roof of Cartier, our first rooftop, purple coated in moonlight.
Oracle’s finger stroked the control button thoughtfully without depressing it. She preferred waiting a full ten days after the anniversary before resuming usual contact protocols for Batman. In Hell Month, she would certainly not bring him anything this thin—a maybe of a maybe of a maybe. She would make damn sure Nightwing was missing, that it was not some flukish interference with the OraCom and GPS. He’d gone much longer than this without checking in, they all had. It didn’t mean there was a situation… And there was nothing particularly sinister about the OraCom and GPS going out together. It wasn’t like it was all coincidence. Any number of environmental factors could flood the frequencies or play havoc with the encryption sequence on both devices. Once, Robin fried his communicator and transponder just by landing on a TV news van with a satellite dish… Of course, if Nightwing noticed his communicator was out, it wasn’t like him to ignore it. Usually he’d find a pay phone and call that way, something safe and innocuous on an unguarded channel. Most often, he’d pretend to order a pizza with pineapple and anchovies… but he might not have even noticed the communicator was out. Or if he did, he might not be able to get to a phone. He would be counting on the fact that she was a professional that knew what it was to be in the field, and not some excitable newlywed jumping to conclusions because her husband didn’t call… And yet… the fact was, Hell Month technically ended with the anniversary. There was no rule that said she had to wait ten days before resuming normal procedures, and under normal circumstances, she would certainly call any information in to Batman regardless of the certainty of what it meant…
To be continued…