Whiskers trotted across the Great Hall of Wayne Manor like a cat on a mission. He trotted up the grand staircase, down the hallway, and made a brisk turn into Selina’s suite.
ººFOUND IT!ºº he declared with such a gleam of feline triumph, Nutmeg actually lifted her head several centimeters from the cushion where she napped, and looked at him.
ººI found it!ºº the cat repeated, ººI found that cave smell!ºº
ººThe cave smell,ºº Whiskers insisted, ººDamp. Clammy. Rock. When Bat-Bruce is Two-Foot in Boots.ºº
Nutmeg licked a paw, unable to share Whiskers’s enthusiasm for their new quarters. Most of the furniture had come with them to this new place, but not Selina-cat’s bed, and hence, not Nutmeg’s war room underneath Selina-cat’s bed. All of Nutmeg’s prized trophies: the plastic milk ring, the crunchy envelope, the paper ball, the pantyhose egg, had all been lost along with her special place for keeping them. Whiskers suffered a loss as well: his terrace and the prize spot behind the planter where he pretended to be the stalking jungle cat of death. But his special cushion was here, so he didn’t mind so much. Indeed, he seemed to look on the new place as a great adventure.
ººSo,ºº Nutmeg said finally, deciding to give Whiskers his moment of glory, ººyou found the smell?ºº
ººBehind the tick-tock. Tick-tock opens up into big dark. Damp. Clammy. Rock. Lots of mousy squeak-squeak noise.ºº
ººHow can anyone not like mice?ºº he asked. Whiskers was a life-long enthusiast of the gentlemanly sport of mousing. He didn’t understand how anybody could not enjoy it.
ººWoof.ºº came the reply, the ultimate expression of feline disdain.
Whiskers shifted his back legs in a telltale signal that he was ready to pounce. Then he hopped up to the sofa, rolled Nutmeg onto her side and nipped at her ear while her paw swatted his muzzle. When the brief wrestle was over, Whiskers touched the tip of his nose to Nutmeg’s, just as two martial artists might bow after a match. Then he sat up.
ººIf you don’t explore,ºº he told her sternly, ººyou’ll never find a new territoire.ºº
ººI explore,ºº Nutmeg said proudly, ººI followed Standing Softpaws today.ºº
ººAeiou!ºº Whiskers exclaimed in delight.
Both cats were equally fascinated by the two-foot they called Standing Softpaws. He was almost catlike in his ability to appear from nowhere and stare—which he did a great deal in their first days here. It seemed that he was keeping an eye on them, which they found insulting. They were certain he was the keeper of their new living quarters, for he had a wonderfully feline way of moving about the rooms, putting every little thing in its proper place. Few two-foots were so precise about where objects belonged. If only he would get over this idea that they had some grudge against his breakables.
“Adorable creatures, Miss,” they had heard him saying, “but I do fear for the Meissen and the Ming.”
That led to outrageous suggestions that they be locked in Selina-cat’s suite. They overheard Bat-Bruce veto the idea:
“Alfred, I’ll admit I don’t know all there is to know about cat behavior. But I have learned one thing: If you let them know you don’t want them to go in a particular place, it absolutely guarantees that will become the mission of their lives.”
“Respectfully, sir, is it not possible you are letting your experiences with Miss Selina cloud your-”
“No, Alfred. It’s not.”
“I see, sir.”
“Selina says leave the door open, and once they see they can come and go freely, they’ll probably stay in there with their familiar things after the preliminary explorations.”
“Very good, sir.”
Both cats thought Bat-Bruce should be rewarded for such admirable behavior: Whiskers did so by rubbing his head into the pantleg, while Nutmeg determined to claim one of his socks just as soon as she found a new war room in which to keep it.
She also resolved to settle the matter of Standing Softpaws.
Ubu had never seen anything like the view from the Royal Suite of the Gotham Imperial Hotel. The opulence of the suite itself, while equally unknown, he had been trained to expect. Brought up since birth to become Ubu, bodyguard, personal attendant, first and last disciple of the Great and Mighty Demon’s Head, it was understood that he would serve in settings of ultimate luxury. The suite that comprised the whole of the 28th Floor of the grand hotel with all of its palatial furnishings, frescoes, and Roman style bath/jacuzzi, and even its 2,000-bottle wine cellar, did not faze him. But the spectacle of the cityscape beyond the bulletproof glass windows, that was truly dazzling. Not that Ubu would permit such wonders to distract him from his duty. Fate and the Master’s wish had decreed that his first days as Ubu would take them into the heart of the enemy’s power. This city was the stronghold of He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, and Ubu took this threat to his master most seriously. He replaced the bulletproof glass, closed-circuit video cameras, and other safety features the hotel provided for the unimportant celebrities and prime ministers that normally occupied these quarters, and installed DEMON equipment and personnel in their place. He himself would stand watch at the doors to the private elevator, that none could gain admittance to the Presence without his knowledge. And the three Gothamites granted an audience had been hand-picked by Ulstarn, the master’s most loyal lieutenant, entrusted with heading operations in this heart of enemy territory.
With continued vigilance, the bodyguard felt sure he would soon look back on this difficult first assignment as Ubu and know he had served with distinction.
Puddin’ always said the difference between the star villains and the wannabes was the evil laugh. The problem with these new action movies, he said, despite all the bright red blood and colorful guts thrown around the screen, was all these smooth sophisticated villains that thought they were Alan Rickman. Nobody let loose with a really good Mad Scientist cackle anymore!
Nobody, that is, except Two-Face. To please her Puddin’, Harley had tried to perfect a chortle of evil glee, so she considered herself something of an expert on the subject. And Harvey/Two-Face’s joint reaction to what happened to Ivy at the Highland Games certainly qualified as what Puddin’ would have called ‘a classic Margaret Hamilton.’
“You’re comparing us to the Wicked Witch of the West, and you expect us to consider it a compliment?” Two-Face asked menacingly, pointing to his scarred cheek.
“It’s your laugh, Twofers, it’s really world class.”
He flipped the coin, and then smiled. “Just because I look at you when you speak, you shouldn’t assume I’m listening—how did it go again—shouldn’t assume I’m listening to or care about what you say. That’s just something I do to be polite... Oh my, we must meet this man one day. What did you say his name was?”
“Galen MacDoogles. I think.”
“Excellent.” At that moment, and without benefit of a coin toss, Harvey Dent and Two-Face officially formed the Galen MacDoogles Fan Club—Membership: 2. He would have shirts made up and a mug, with that wonderful quotation. On the walk back from the restaurant, he wondered if he should pluralize the quote (“Just because we look at you when you speak…”), but decided that would be a desecration of MacDoogles’s triumph.
He and Harley stopped abruptly when they reached the entrance to the Flick Theatre and saw an oddly dressed man standing the door.
“You are Harvey Dent/Two-Face?” the stranger asked.
“What’s it look like?” he replied, pointing again to the scarred side of his face.
The stranger bowed then snapped upright and
spoke in a clear, distinct voice:
Two-Face looked at Harley, who looked right back.
“And WHAT, pray tell us, are you?”
The stranger stumbled over his words, as no one ever addressed him directly.
“I… I am a message, sire.” Then he cleared his throat and began again, “A Missive from the great and powerful Ra’s Al Ghul, Light of the East—”
“Yes, yes, we got all that. Mr. ‘Dead and Loving It’ has sent us a singing telegram. Get to the point.”
Unable to fast-forward past the header on pain of death, the messenger launched into it again. “A Missive from the great and powerful Ra’s Al Ghul…”
Two-Face waited… yawned… then glanced at his watch.
“…summoned to an audience with the most illustrious Demon’s Head at the Gotham Imperial Hotel promptly at one o’clock.”
“Did you say ONE o’clock?” he asked, skeptical that even The Cadaver could be so deliberately rude. He had already decided that the answer was no. The coin toss, when the time came, would be one of his special tosses. (Unscarred side up: Harvey would politely tell the man ‘No,’ and send him on his way. Scarred side: Two-Face would shoot him in the kneecaps—twice.) But THIS, this outrage did not deserve so much as a courtesy coin flip. One o’clock indeed.
“Oh Twofers!” Harley jumped up and down clapping, “Why not go; it sounds like FUN! Puddin’ always said he wanted to meet the hairdo again—and pants him!”
Two-Face looked from Harley to the messenger… to Harley… to the messenger…
“Tell Lurch,” he said finally, “that if he wants a meeting with us, then he had better make it at a time more suitable to our… needs.” And with that, he walked with great dignity into his hideout to see about ordering t-shirts and coffee mugs.
Nutmeg observed that Standing Softpaws had again appeared at the door to the room. He was, Nutmeg would have to admit, almost as silent as a cat. Neither Bat-Bruce nor Selina-cat were as quiet as they seemed to think. Like all two-foots, their ears were simply too far from the ground to be able to move with true stealth. But Standing Softpaws was the exception to the rule: here he was, staring at her, and Nutmeg had no idea how or when he arrived.
She stared back, politely.
And he walked away.
This struck her as unforgivably rude, even for a two-foot. She had interrupted her nap in order to return his stare, and he walked away. She decided right then that he should be taught a lesson. She would follow him to his own nap-place and look at him, see how he liked it!
She followed down the hall, down the stairs, and down another hallway. She followed through the bright room and the drafty room and the room with all the books. She stopped long enough to rub her scent into the doorway. She liked books, they had a warm, crisp smell and were fun to curl in when Selina-cat tried to read them. Then Nutmeg trotted faster to catch up with Standing Softpaws wherever he had gone to… she rounded the corner and… gaped.
It was the Land of the Can-Opener. It was the biggest, grandest, sparkling Land of the Can-Opener any cat had ever seen! And Standing Softpaws was its king???
Instantly, Nutmeg decided she had misjudged this wise and noble two-foot. She would find him and make amends at once.
Ra’s al Ghul knew that from the moment he set foot in Gotham City, time was his enemy. The Detective would learn all too soon of his presence, and from that instant, Ra’s would be forced to play a defensive game rather than an offensive one.
He had determined to delay the Detective’s advantage as long as possible by bringing a large, conspicuous entourage to the same hotel as before. Surely the Detective would learn of this before the luggage was even unpacked, and surely the Detective would assume so obvious an arrival must be a decoy. He would assume it was all a ploy, that Ra’s wanted him to believe he had returned to Gotham City for some reason as yet unknown, and for that very reason, he would be slow to realize the truth of the Demon Head’s Imperial Presence in his City.
Ra’s al Ghul was certain that this, like all his stratagems, was sound. And yet, he did not wish to remain in this city longer than necessary. He would meet the three candidates Ulstarn had gathered and choose one. The chosen Gothamite would then be tested.
The testing itself would provide an opportunity to leave this cursed city promptly. There was a traditional method of examination that would serve the purpose.
Ra’s reminded himself that the test in question was a proven one, he had used it with both the Detective and his one-time successor, the Imposter Azrael. It was an established method. Let it not be said that Ra’s Al Ghul chose one test over another simply to minimize his time in Gotham City. He did not fear the Detective or any man. It was simply an appropriate and proven means of assessment.
He had already contacted his daughter and had her orchestrate an abrupt, unexplained absence from her duties at LexCorp. “A personal day” she had called it, whatever that meant. He had ordered her to obtain and send him the necessary photographs, which were now in his possession.
His daughter Talia, he would say, had been kidnapped. He would present the photograph of her tied up, sent as proof of her capture. The criminals of Gotham City were, by definition, not so heroically inclined as the Detective and the Imposter, so Ra’s would offer some incentive, a great bounty for his daughter’s rescue.
Yes, it was a sound plan. Ra’s awaited with eagerness the arrival of the first candidate.
Nutmeg was not actually able to locate Standing Softpaws to make her apologies until the harsh squeal led her to his location. She recognized the sound—it was a teakettle, and it meant there would be little plates with cake and sometimes sandwiches. She saw Standing Softpaws take just such a plate into a little pantry-like room off the kitchen. There he sat, in a hard-looking chair that offended Nutmeg’s feline sensibilities. Beside him was a little table. From her position on the floor, she could not see onto the table, but her nose told her the steaming hot tea was on there, which meant the cake would be too.
She walked up to Standing Softpaws and treated him to the “aren’t I precious” look.
“Good heavens, who let you in here?” was the less-than-welcoming greeting.
Nutmeg switched her posture from “aren’t I precious” to “what can you be doing over there that could possibly be more interesting than admiring me?”
He appeared to ignore her, then glanced down twice as he sipped his tea. Nutmeg waited for the third glance, readying herself to perform the ultimate act of feline beguilement: the silent miaow.*
The moment came—Standing Softpaws reached for his tea, brought the cup to his lips, and glanced downward. Nutmeg opened her mouth as she would for a fully articulated meow, but emitted no sound. Standing Softpaws watched this, as all two-foots do, as if pondering what possible burden could so plague a little creature that she could not even give voice to it. He set down his cup, and bent to take Nutmeg into his lap.
“Now then, little fellow, it can’t be as bad as all that, can it? I suppose this house is rather large and daunting for someone like you to get used to.” He touched his fingertip to Nutmeg’s nose, which she permitted, as it seemed like a friendly gesture, and also because it smelled like tea. “But I assure you,” he went on, now stroking her fur as he spoke, “that you are not the first newcomer here, and, thus far, all new residents of Wayne Manor have made the adjustment.”
He gave her a morsel of cake and told her of Master Dick and Master Jason, and his efforts to make them welcome when they came to live here. They sounded, to Nutmeg, like two of the sorriest cats she ever heard tell of.
Bruce had never allowed injuries such as those suffered at the hands of the Gamma-Gorgon to impact Batman’s routine, and he wasn’t about to start now. Bruce Wayne would, of course, be “out of town” until his injuries healed cosmetically, but Batman could always continue his nightly patrols, no matter how banged up he might appear. Indeed, he preferred to be conspicuous after a JLA mission, often rousting suspects near the Iceberg for the sole purpose of being seen. He knew it was unlikely anyone would have noticed his absence of a night or two, especially as the Batmobile’s automated appearances around the city were calculated to give the impression of an active and vigilant Batman. But just in case any criminals had noticed and been emboldened by his disappearance, he liked to make a striking and fear-inspiring reentry.
In preparation for this, Bruce returned to the cave, noticing as he went the gray cat Whiskers’s curious interest in the clock passageway. He made a mental note to bring some catnip oil from the cave and smear it on other objects in the study to draw the cat’s attention away from the clock, and perhaps find a coating for the base of the clock itself to act as a deterrent. Menthol or camphor should do the trick.
Not feeling up to a full workout, Bruce warmed up with a few low-weight curls… then a dozen tricep pressdowns… and finally an abbreviated Tai Chi cycle.
Feeling invigorated, he took a bottle of water from the cooler and logged into his workstation. He began with the Oracle summaries of Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl and Spoiler’s activities—they weren’t nearly as thorough as his own log entries, but that was expected—there was a curious note:
SpecSurv Gig-G.B. still at I despite S - reassigned Bouncer/Doorman.
Batman easily translated this as a Special Surveillance they were conducting of someone designated Gig or G.B. at the Iceberg Lounge. The individual was “still” at the Iceberg “despite S” which Batman deduced meant still working there despite Sly’s return—“reassigned as Bouncer/Doorman.” So Gig-G.B. must have been the interim bartender.
He wondered why Oracle was ordering this special surveillance—this was the first he’d heard of it. And he wondered more about the follow-up comment:
or bad? Now BG can keep him in sight without venturing
Normally he would call Oracle immediately and get a full report, but there was still too much to get caught up on. He simply made a note to look into it once he’d finished the news clippings and download summaries…
Arkham was reporting that Joker regained his sight. The brief lip-twitch was almost immediately replaced by calculations as to when the madman would take action now that his vision was restored.
The At Large list was an obscenity, and Bruce swore at it obscenely. Harley Quinn—released from Arkham already. Two-Face—released already. Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, Roxy Rocket, Catman. Why didn’t they just change the name and get it over with: Arkham Bed and Breakfast for the Criminally Insane, Convenient to City, Office open 24 hours. Call for reservations or visit our web page…
As he always did when he became agitated with the At Large list, Batman started to multi-task. He opened the JLA database and made his entry for the Gamma Gorgon—and added an addendum to Clark and Diana’s entries before closing the file.
Then he pulled up the summaries of the autodownloads. There were four flags:
Batman read no further, recognizing the name of the establishment instantly. It was where Ra’s Al Ghul stayed when he dared come to Gotham City in person.
“Computer,” he snapped, “VOX Enable. Defcon 4 Protocols activate.”
To be continued…
*as documented in The Silent Miaow, A Manual for Kittens, Strays and Homeless Cats, translated from the feline by Paul Gallico, Crown Publishers c. 1956.