It took a special kind of crazy to stand in front of the Flick Theatre, with its massive Comedy-Tragedy masks decorating the façade like gargoyles, and wonder if you were in the right place. Yet this is exactly what Harley Quinn did. She looked down at the sheet of paper for which she’d paid Oswald Cobblepot $50. She looked up at the giant laughing face, she looked up at the weeping face next to it, then down at the paper again. She reread the address and double-checked the street sign. Yes, this was the place.
“Hidilly, hodilly,” she called entering the enormous lobby of the former movie palace, “It’s Harley Qui-inn. Harvey? Twofers? You home?”
In answer, Harley found herself simultaneously picked up and pushed back by a strong masculine presence mere seconds before a piercing squeal split the air and green beams bathed the spot she just occupied in greenish-yellow haze.
“You should call first,” Two-Face said sternly. “Don’t just barge into someone’s hideout without an invitation.”
He turned and walked off; Harley giggled and followed.
“So whatcha doin’ anyways? Testin’ out a deathtrap for Batsy?”
“We have always equipped our hideouts with perimeter defenses, Quinn.”
“Oh, ‘cause if you were testin’ a deathtrap, I could help out with that. Mistah J always let me test out the springs and catapults and trapdoors…”
“…and the chains and sacks and tanks…”
“There was this one time I got stucked in this vat with leeches in it, and Mistah J said-”
“HARLEY! Stop. You’re an educated woman; pronounce the R! Mist-er J.”
Harley started to cry.
“Mistah J, oh my Mistah J. We’re splitzville, Harvey. My Puddin’ done throwed me away.”
Harvey regarded her for a minute, took out the coin and flipped, then looked at it in disgust.
“And while we’re at it,” he said standing, “try pronouncing the G. My PuddING, not Puddin’, Pudding.”
More sobbing wails followed.
“O-o-o-oh,” Bruce moaned, “Don’t stop. I’ll give you another room. Two if you want. Or another trip to Paris. Just… don’t… stop…”
Light, sure fingers worked behind the shoulders to the base of his neck.
“I don’t need another room,” Selina assured him, “but I do need more liniment. Hold that thought.”
Bruce watched her disappear into the bathroom and wondered if she really needed more, or was making an excuse to stop just because he said not to. “Impossible woman,” he told the cat pawing an extra bit of bandage.
He’d have to admit, so far, it wasn’t the worst recovery he’d ever undergone. She had found him in the cave only a short while after he returned from the Watchtower. The sharp gasp when she saw his condition she quickly hid in a light “Somebody forgot to duck.”
He gave a soft grunt—which hurt, somehow tugging neck muscles that were already punished beyond endurance. It must have showed because the glib ‘forgot to duck’ manner melted.
“It’s okay,” her soft voice soothed, “Kitten will make it better.” He headed instinctively for the cave infirmary, but Selina pulled him towards the costume vault. “No way. Not another ‘I’ll just stay in my cave and brood’ episode. Upstairs. Now.” It was a tone Batman knew well. If she was in costume, there would have been a whipcrack in place of the ‘Now.’
He’d started to object. Alfred was perfectly capable of tending these kinds of burns and bruises; he’d done it many times before, and always in the cave infirmary. Batman preferred to put in a little cave time after a lengthy JLA mission, if only to get caught up on the… status of… everything… Suddenly, it all seemed like an awful lot to go into. Especially since she’d taken a clawed glove from her shelf and was diligently tearing away the last bits of his costume. She was obviously going to do this, with his help or without it. And he knew he didn’t have the energy to oppose her. What was the point anyway? Upstairs or down, what did it matter?
Ulstarn began by tidying his desk. Then, deciding that really was not sufficient for the importance of the task before him, he cleaned the desktop completely. Then he found a towel and wiped it off. Then he arranged the intelligence reports in a neat stack on his left, perfectly parallel with the bottom edge of the desk. The status updates he placed with equal precision to his right, and, directly in front of him, he positioned a lined white legal pad.
“Prepare a list,” the Demon’s Head had ordered, “of promising individuals who have opposed the Detective successfully.”
Ulstarn lifted his pen and scanned the first report, eager to follow his master’s order to the letter…
…three hours later, Ulstarn regarded the pristine white pages still before him. A list Ra’s al Ghul had ordered, and a list Ulstarn would deliver. Individuals who opposed the Detective were in ready supply, and “promising” was a matter of opinion. The difficulty lay in that word “successfully.”
Ulstarn glanced at the intelligence reports again, sighed, and went to the filing cabinet. He returned with a thicker stack, reports for the six months prior to those he had started with…
…three hours later, Ulstarn returned the reports to the filing cabinet and went down to the basement. He emerged with a storage box of the previous four years of intelligence…
…two hours later, the pen, at last, wrote a name:
Ulstarn regarded the word with distaste. ONE NAME? Eight hours, and he had unearthed ONE Gotham criminal that had never been captured?? He could not, he knew, hand Ra’s Al Ghul a list consisting of a single word. He returned to the files…
…six hours later, Ulstarn went to bed, dejected.
He awoke with a blessed inspiration! Ra’s al Ghul had decreed: “I shan’t waste my time with failures incarcerated in their prisons or asylums.” Surely that must mean criminals that were CURRENTLY incarcerated in their prisons. Anyone could be captured, but those that were and subsequently freed themselves were surely worthy of consideration!
Ulstarn recalled the Master’s precise words “…who have opposed the Detective successfully.” The master did not order a list of individuals “who defeated the Detective.” They merely had to oppose him—successfully. And could it not be said that any man who stands against another has successfully opposed him? Of course it could! Like the very first account Ulstarn had read last night: Two-Face, who so recently succeeded in kidnapping “the Upstart Nightwing” (as he was known in DEMON circles). The Upstart Nightwing was, in a way, the Detective’s second, his best lieutenant, just as Ulstarn was Ra’s Al Ghul’s. To succeed in kidnapping such a one surely was a worthy feat of opposition!
Ulstarn returned to his desk, happily slid the four years of old reports back into their box, and wrote the name Two-Face beneath that of Catwoman. Then he looked to the status reports to his right. He need only find any other individuals, now free, that had mounted a worthy opposition to The Detective.
Once Bruce had resigned himself to being led upstairs, the specifics didn’t seem to matter. He was surprised when Selina turned left instead of right in the upstairs hall, into her suite of rooms rather than his bedroom. There was an exciting strangeness to it, like those first visits to her apartment after patrol.
“Sit,” she ordered, pointing him to the sofa. Whiskers looked up from his cushion and Bruce seemed to see Selina’s earlier comment echoed in the cat’s eyes: ‘Somebody forgot to duck.’
Selina busied herself gathering… just what she was gathering he couldn’t see… and when he stretched his neck to get a better look, the pain shooting down his chest was excruciating. He closed his eyes and leaned back, content to wait and see rather than aggravate his aching body further.
He focused on the chakra, which he preferred to think of as his center of gravity, to block out the pain… and he thought back to those first visits to Selina’s apartment when the relationship had only started to change. There was a hint of the forbidden, not infiltrating a criminal’s lair, but inviting himself, socially. He’d been slow, back then, to realize the true nature of her apartment. Catwoman might have hideouts just as Batman had the cave, but the apartment was Selina’s home just as Wayne Manor was Bruce’s. It had little to do with her nightlife. If he’d realized that at the beginning, he wondered if he would have entered so freely.
Back in the present, Bruce felt himself pulled from his memories by a rush of sensory
Bruce’s eyes opened and he looked into his lap.
“Nutmeg?” he asked. The warm bundle looked up at him with that same ‘Forget to duck?’ expression.
“Pet the cat,” Selina instructed. “It lowers the blood pressure.”
“You can’t be serious?”
“I have rosewater, aloe balm, and liniment for your assorted wounds and contusions, and assuming there’s any part of you left unbruised, I even have some delicious herbal massage oil. Now, if you want a rub down and all the associated TLC, pet the cat.”
Harvey sat down a glass of water and a box of Kleenex before his guest.
“Now then, what can we do for you?”
“I need a lawyer,” Harley sobbed. “Puddin’ and I are splitzville. And I just have to get custody of the babies, Harvey; I have to. Puddin’ doesn’t know how to mix the hyena chow, and Slobberpuss likes a second walk after dinner, and—”
“The hyenas? You want custody of two pet hyenas??? You don’t need a lawyer, Harley; you need a leash.”
Harley blew her nose loudly.
“Or some rope.”
She blew her nose again, and Two-Face stood, nudging her towards the door.
“Not that we care, but what finally made that Joker-camel paraplegic?”
“You and Joker. What was the final straw? What split you up?”
“Ask an insane question,” Harvey muttered to Two-Face.
“Puddin’ got mad ‘cause I tripped over bagpipes when Red ‘n’ me went to those Highland Games, where she met the creepy guy that didn’t go fer the pheromones ‘n’ said he just looked at her to be polite.”
Two-Face stared. Harvey stared.
“Harley,” he said finally, “Why rush off? Stay a while. Let us buy you lunch. We will take you to our favorite restaurant.”
Then he paused, half his psyche railing against the wrongness of it all. No, regardless of how much he wanted to hear the Ivy story, Fate should decide who bought lunch.
“On second thought, heads we’re buying; scarred-side it’s your treat.”
Ulstarn considered the picture of a small, weaselly looking character in a large hat. The Mad Hatter. Certainly he opposed the Detective a number of times, and certainly he was free. But the Master distrusted madness, and this character put the word right in his title. Pass.
The Scarecrow. Another impressive resume of opposition… but there was this odd notation in the margin of the psychological profile, next to the paragraph about bullies. “Introduce him to Ulcer. Ha, ha.” Ulstarn recognized the handwriting as that of Ish’koan, a particularly difficult disciplinary case sent to Gotham last year. Ulstarn regarded the photo of Jonathan Crane critically. Pass.
Catman. Especially daring if not downright reckless due to belief that magical properties of his costume endows him with nine lives of… no. That would only offend the Great One, whose immortality was celebrated daily in the loyalty oath… which reminded Ulstarn, it was time to make the morning report to the most Glorious Demon’s Head even as his plane flew towards Gotham, a city now twice honored by a personal visit from the Imperial Presence.
Ulstarn looked down at his list. Three names. It would have to be enough.
“So,” Selina said finally, once her patient seemed suitably relaxed by the massage, “tell me what the other guy looks like.”
“The other guy was a Gamma-Gorgon,” Bruce murmured, “Hideous… even before the fight.”
“Not funny. Sixteen feet tall, wings, claws, scales, fangs, and this vicious snake tongue that whipped out radioactive—Hey, that hurt!”
The massage had ceased and Selina rapped irate fingers across his bruised shoulder.
“A sixteen foot radioactive snake thing!?! And you couldn’t let one of the invincible wonder-schmucks fight it?”
“I could have, if there had been any sort of advance assessment of what we were getting in to, if any of the ‘invincible wonder-schmucks’ thought that was necessary, but it seems stopping to consider that something calling itself the Absolute Bal-Sagoth just MIGHT have something nasty guarding its Neolith of Power, that’s just a quirky little fetish of mine…”
“Bruce, sweetie, calm down.”
“…undoubtedly caused by the fact that if my skin is hit with a beam of ionizing radiation, it burns!”
“And if I’m punctured with a fucking two foot fang, I’ll bleed!”
“Calm. Down. Now. You’re scaring the cats.”
She pointed. Behind the plump mass of velvet and moiré that was Whiskers’s favorite cushion, a mass of Russian Blue fur was imperfectly hidden. Behind that, the tan and white points of Nutmeg’s ears were clearly visible.
“Sorry,” he mouthed silently.
“Don’t tell me; I’m used to your tempers.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “You’re not suggesting I apologize to a cat.”
“No, I’m not suggesting; I’m insisting.”
“Did you enjoy your massage?”
“I think you mentioned Paris before.”
:: Would The Great One permit his most unworthy servant to mark this most revered day by closing my report with the oath of loyalty in the long form? ::
“Ulstarn, we will be arriving in Gotham City in a matter of hours; surely you will prefer to wait and use the long form to greet us in person.”
:: My Master, I will be only too happy to repeat the long form at that time… ::
Ra’s sighed and cautiously turned down the volume as Ulstarn launched into the long form of the loyalty oath. He really couldn’t complain about an excess of devotion, however trying it might be at times, as long as Ulstarn continued to perform his duties as expected. Certainly the man succeeded in keeping Gotham City a posting that all DEMON followers recognized as punishment. And this report assured him that three promising individuals had been located who all performed successfully against the Detective. It only remained to meet and test them to determine which best embodied the indefinable something that enabled Gothamites to succeed against him where all others failed. Having identified such a person, full of fire and ambition, he would draw them to his vision that they would devote their life and sacrifice it if necessary in the Demon Head’s service.
There only remained to devise a suitable test.
“Now, isn’t this better than cave brooding?”
Selina sat between his legs, her back against his chest, head resting on the one unbruised spot on his shoulder.
“It’s not brooding,” Bruce insisted, kissing lightly around her jaw. “It’s a sound, constructive exercise after a setback: deconstruct it, analyze what went wrong, make sure that never happens again.”
She purred, and Bruce added a checkmark next to kissing from her temple to jaw as an effective means to make his point without argument.
“So what does this ‘deconstruction’ consist of?”
“Well,” his hand slid over the front of her body to the tie of her robe, “last time, with Prometheus, there were security tapes from the Watchtower; that made it easier. I could actually watch the battle over and over instead of replaying it in my mind. It worked. The second time I fought him…”
The purring abruptly stopped.
“Prometheus was the last time?”
“Yes, and it worked; the next time I fought him… Hey, Kitten, you listening?”
“I really didn’t like him.”
“I know,” he cupped her chin and turned her face to meet his, “your entrance with the bullwhip is my favorite part of that tape.”
She emitted a low menacing growl Bruce knew was the Catwoman equivalent of his disapproving grunt.
“Selina, Prometheus burbled every bit of strategy he used against us at the Watchtower. He spelled out everything he had done, out loud, on those tapes. I studied them. I studied the battle. And I beat him the next time. It’s okay.” He leaned down for a slow, tender kiss, and winced in pain. “I’ve got a lot to live for, Kitten. And I know how to learn from these things… Meow?”
She searched his eyes for a long moment, then smiled, reluctantly at first, then wider, Cheshire style.
To be continued…