“MMM. MMMM. MMMMMPHMGRLMMMM… Fellas, next time we order, definitely more of the barbecue spare ribs. You guys gotta try these.”
The DEMON agents all stared at Gr’oriBr’di, trying to fathom this new test. The removal of “The Ulcer” Ulstarn was certainly welcome, but they trembled to learn what sort of man The Great One would have sent to replace their fearsome taskmaster. They knew from the prestigious second apostrophe that the Demon’s Head must hold Gr’oriBr’di in high regard. But beyond that, the man was a mystery. He questioned them, not as Ulstarn had about their movements and conversation when he left the room, but about the menus of the local restaurants: “Boy, look at this. Shredded pork with black bean sauce, ginger shrimp with subgum wonton, ma po tofu, bean curd homestyle… In my neighborhood, it was mostly a Cashew Chicken and Fried Rice kind of thing. So what’s good?”
None knew how to reply to this, so they stood respectfully to await their orders. That led to more pointed questioning about the Pan Fried Noodles and Peking Duck.
In desperation, M’varone brazened to say that once on his afternoon off, before Gr’oriBr’di’s most revered predecessor Ulstarn thought it best to discontinue the practice, he had partaken of lunch at the Ho Sai Gai restaurant down the block, and that he found the chicken with snow peas very satisfying.
Rather than being rebuked for his insolence, M’varone was sent to fetch a menu from the Ho Sai Gai.
Across the street and several stories up, Batman watched the proceedings while, behind him, Catwoman stretched her legs, partially because she was bored and partially to tease her companion.
“Do you have to do that?” he remarked, “It’s distracting.”
After enough banter that she felt acknowledged and appreciated, Batman focused again on the surveillance. “There he is,” she heard him murmur as he snapped a digital photo of the new DEMON leader. A predator by nature, Catwoman’s interest in the stakeout increased exponentially with the sighting of prey. A nimble slink brought her to Batman’s side, looking towards the storefront.
“Oh,” she blurted, surprised.
“What?” Batman asked, using a palm-size console to send the photo to the Batcomputer for analysis. On a point-for-point comparison of thirty facial features and measurements, a search through the full criminal database could take hours. Since he knew it was a Joker henchman, that narrowed the field considerably, but if Selina had more precise information still…
“It’s Greg Brady.”
“Kitten, there are times when your sense of humor leaves a lot to-”
“Oh, give it a rest, will you. His name is Greg Brady. Took over the bar at the Iceberg when Sly went 404.”
As she spoke, the console in his hand beeped, indicating a match. Batman looked at the file scrolling on the console, then at Selina, then at the storefront, then back at the console.
Greg Brady, a.k.a. Giggles, height, weight, scars…
Batman hit escape several times, then punched the screen feverishly with the stylus, frustrated at the limited interface of the mobile console compared to the cave workstations. In the time it took him to consider swinging down to the Batmobile to use the car’s VOX controls, the little palm console had accessed the logs.
There it was, the notations that had puzzled him right before he discovered Ra’s arrival in Gotham City.
Oracle’s special surveillance. Giggles/Greg Brady—still at the Iceberg despite Sly.
What was going on???
A deductive mind sparked into action, locking onto the question with the force of an electric magnet and reaching to grasp hold of every known scrap of information—and every known source to obtain more.
He catalogued them: Catwoman, Oracle, Brady himself—and in all probability, Batgirl.
Then he prioritized them:
Batgirl slumped visibly when she made her regular detour patrolling through NoHo to check activity near the Iceberg Lounge. Again, Gregory was not in his usual position as doorman. She couldn’t guess what had happened to him. The only two methods of finding out were to disguise herself again and infiltrate the bar—unthinkable after her last misadventure—or to attack some Iceberg scum once they’d left the bar and beat the answers out of them.
That was easier said than done.
What would she ask? The language of intimidation Batgirl spoke fluently. She could make any scum understand that they better ‘fess up or they would taste their own spleen. But demanding answers was one thing; asking the question was another. What could she possibly ask? “What became of that handsome bartender who fought like a panther?”
She ground her boot into a tin can and kicked a broken Pepsi bottle into a trashcan lid.
Harvey Dent and Two-Face were, for once, able to agree without resorting to a coin flip. What they felt for Harley Quinn was not romantic. Two-Face lusted. And Harvey was availing himself of a little free therapy, much like everyone he knew prodded him for free legal advice.
The price—there was always a price—was this sidekick business.
Her costume, at least, was suitably divided in half, both horizontally and vertically. No trip to Kittlemeier’s necessary for a new outfit, just a wig. The wig was divided down the center, black and platinum blonde. Harvey couldn’t understand why she refused to wear it. She didn’t squirm at wearing tassels with bells on the tips, but two-tone hair made her look silly?
Then there was the matter of her aim. When
Harley pointed a gun, it seemed, the victim would always have a 50-50
chance… and so did everyone else! Maybe
Joker didn’t mind the odd stray bullet taking out an easy chair or a hapless
henchman, but Two-Face liked a bit more order in his random violence:
The coin went up, the coin came down, scarred side said: Kill!;
unscarred said: ‘Shit, 2 out of 3 then.’ ‘No cheating,
Two-Face.’ ‘Shut up, you.’ ‘Sore loser.’ ‘Lawyer.’ ‘Gangster.’
“Look Handsome, I really have, from the beginning, considered this to be an inter-bat situation. You should take it up with Oracle, not with me.”
“Humor me,” Batman insisted. He could feel her reaction to the deep, gravelly voice. There was no outward sign, no purr or sigh or blush. But they had shared that unspoken physical connection for so long, his body could sense her response: She liked it. It turned her on.
“You’re here now,” he pressed, a crustier edge on the ‘r’s meant to convey menace. “Tell me.”
Chinatown is not as dark as many parts of Gotham. The neon glare from Canal Street diluted the gleam of thrilled feline eyes cutting through darkness. But it couldn’t diminish the slow magnificence of a catsmile creeping over parting moist lips.
“Or?” she challenged, daring him to complete the threat.
A gloved hand gently brushed back her hair at the shoulder, then grasped the back of her neck firmly while the other hand touched a single fingertip to her lips. He licked his own lip for an instant, considering the options… then shook it off.
“Selina, there isn’t time. Tell me.”
Her eyelids flickered downward, a pouting cat, one of those moments she truly seemed to be her namesake.
“OK,” she sighed, “You’re no fun, though.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Long story short: Batgirl saw him punch out some lowlife BC was trailing, and she’s a little smitten.”
“Smitten?” he pronounced the word like a disease.
“Oracle roped me into it because it was Hell Month, so I asked around the Iceberg.”
“He seems mostly harmless, as decorative henchmen go.”
“SMITTEN? I can’t have operatives smitten with someone that high in the DEMON organization.”
The neon glare from Canal Street did little to dilute hostile feline eyes flaring through the darkness.
“Yes, that would be a sticky little problem, wouldn’t it. Look—”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I just meant: DEMON or Joker, it’s all fraternizing with the enemy and…” He slowed, realizing that implication was no better than the other. “Damnit, you know what I’m getting at.”
“You don’t want Batgirl chasing after Greg Brady.”
“QUINN! That chest Duo and Ditto are attempting to carry from the armored car weighs approximately six hundred pounds. It will weigh less if you STOP SITTING ON IT!”
“But Twofers, if I hop down—”
“AND DON’T CALL US TWOFERS!”
“Oracle, this is not an unreasonable question. I am not an unreasonable man.”
Batman paused, knowing the woman on the other end of the comlink was smirking at his words exactly like the woman in front of him was. He shot a ‘behave’ glare at Selina, then spoke again into the OraCom:
“Why didn’t you tell me about this? Batgirl was… socially… tracking a member of the rogue community, and you thought it wasn’t my concern?”
..:: …thought it was something best handled by the girls… ::..
He grumbled at ‘the girls’ as the quacking in his earpiece continued.
“And when exactly,” he interrupted, “were you planning on telling me about this?”
..:: When she turns 30, ::.. came the cheeky reply.
He grunted. “Fine. At least you’ve put a stop to it, right?”
There was interference on the channel that sounded suspiciously like Barbara scraping a fingernail across the mouthpiece.
..:: You’re breaking up, Boss. Will check in later. ::..
A lightning move, his hand flared out and grabbed Selina’s wrist. Ignoring her outrage, he took one of her clawed fingers and dragged it methodically over the mic.
“Yes, O, confirmed. I’ve got the very same interference going on here. So we’ll cut this short. Just give me Cassie’s location. NOW.”
Two-Face groaned, not with the pain of a concussion but from the grim certainty that he was again bound for Arkham Asylum. Another splendid crime spree cut short by that vicious baby bat with the killer right hook and a penchant for driving her dainty boot into his skull.
Not to mention the fact that he was bound for Arkham—for the second time—in the company of a female accomplice, not Poison Ivy, when Ivy herself was in residence. The thought of yet again being referred to as one of “the triangle at Arkham”…
The thought of being one of the triangle was quickly and horribly exorcised by the realization that it was not a triangle this time but a rectangle—for Joker was ALSO currently in residence at Arkham. Two-Face took absolutely no consolation from the addition of a fourth, and therefore an even number of participants in the relationship tangle. “Divisible by two” is small comfort if you’re snorting SmileX.
In desperation, he bit his tongue until blood seeped through his lips, fell to the floor, convulsing horribly, and when the guard bent down to help him, Two-Face rammed his heel into the crouching man’s groin.
He liberated himself, his coin, but not his accomplice, and charged the van doors, rolling neatly to a stop on the apron of Interstate-2. He smirked at the roadsign, flipped his coin, and began walking back to town.
“Just give me Cassie’s location. Now.” Telling, isn’t it. Cassie. Not Batgirl. He tried to pretend it was all business, that it was the DEMON investigation and nothing more, but I knew better. ‘Cassie’s location’ meant it was personal. He cares more than any of them give him credit for. I’ll never understand why they don’t see it. Just because he grunts. That’s his way.
So… he pretended it wasn’t personal. And I let him…
When we caught up with Batgirl, she had just polished off a Two-Face/Harley Quinn robbery. What that pair were doing together is anybody’s guess. Cassie wouldn’t know; she doesn’t follow the interpersonal plotlines as a rule. All we could gather was that there was an armored car, a couple goons, a couple guns, and then there was a wailing and weeping and gnashing of tassels. Fate, yet again, doing its little tap-dance on Harvey’s colon.
The paddywagon had just left, carting them all off to Arkham. Worse luck for me. If there were rogues or cops still around, I would have watched the proceedings from a safely distant rooftop. But since there was no one but Cass to see me with Batman, I stuck around.
He started off with the “information” angle: What do you know about this Greg Brady? What are his habits? How did he get the Ra’s assignment? Etc.
That last one was big news to her. The Ra’s assignment: “Is that where he went? Where did he go? Where is he now?”
THAT just set off the battitude: “No, I’m asking the questions. What do you know?”
And THAT just set off the teenager: “NOT asking questions until answer mine.”
As I said before, an inter-bat situation. I could have been safely across the street, watching from a rooftop. But no, I was in the middle of it.
“He is wonderful, much to learn from him, vicious like a panther fighter, but still handsome with soft sandy hair—and sensitive—and funny—and smart—and he sings and plays racquetball and—”
“Enough. This isn’t a conversation. You will NOT continue searching for this man. Understood.”
“Madmen with enough C4 to put a hole in the world, no sweat. Gamma-Gorgons, not ideal but manageable. But a 17 year old crushing girl…”
It’d seen that look before. Usually at Tiffany’s. The flubberdiwhat look: What am I going to do with you, you incomprehensible, female thing?
“…there’s just no hammering teen-infatuation-angst into the round hole of rational thinking…”
I knew right then he had never had anything like this with the boys. Hormones, of course, there would have been raging hormones with teenage boys. But he probably has standard protocols for that by now: Robin notices Catwoman’s cleavage—initiate memorization and quizzing on the periodic table of elements.
But he had nothing prepared for this current scenario. That would bug him, something he hadn’t anticipated. He’d hate that—which meant a shitload of trouble for Batgirl. Working him into a state like that is not something to be done lightly. I do it, of course, but I know what I’m doing and I know I can handle him. But Batgirl? She’s a vicious little thing as far as the crimefighting goes, but she is just a kid, more so than the boys ever were. She was so unequipped to handle something like this, I actually thought about stepping in.
I know. Soft touch.
But before I could decide either way, I noticed the fuming had stopped and he wasn’t even looking at her anymore —he was looking at ME? Like it was all my fault! Or—maybe not my fault, but something—the bat wheels were turning and I couldn’t fathom how.
“Come on,” he said; fired the ascender and that was it.
Gr’oriBr’di, a former henchman himself, decided that the first change that needed to be made was this time-off business. Why this “Ulcer” wanted all his men underfoot 24/7, Greg couldn’t imagine. There was nothing for them to do but stand around, and having apparently no lives at all outside of the job, they didn’t even have anything to talk about while they stood around.
He promptly gave the two senior men the night off, instructing them to go out and have some fun. He suggested the Iceberg if they had no better ideas of where to go. Say ‘Hi’ to Mr. Cobblepot, he told them, mention his name and Sly would surely take good care of them.
That left him with the three remaining agents. In the interests of passing the time after they made their brief reports, he tried making conversation on the only interest they had: the job. He demonstrated some favorite moves, a block against high kicks, a chokehold, an upper chop. It opened them up a bit. It was an okay way to spend the evening, swapping techniques and stories. Still, he looked forward to the day, once they had all experienced an evening off, when they would get some interests besides fisticuffs and join him in the Ho Sai Gai’s delicious spare ribs.
Two blocks shy of his hideout at the Flick Theatre, Two-Face stopped in a 7-Eleven. He still didn’t like the name, but he was not so fanatically opposed to making a purchase (or two) if 1- he thought they had what he wanted and 2- it was his idea and not the suggestion of a pathologically annoying twit.
He searched the aisle thoroughly, and finally found what he was looking for after the grueling walk back to the city from the interstate: blister pads.
He didn’t say a word about it until we got home. He went straight to his workstation and made his log entries, I went to the worktable, heated some cocoa on the Bunsen burner, and set a mug by his elbow. Instead of the usual thanks/grunt, his arm shot out and settled on my waist.
“Don’t go up to bed yet. I want to talk about something.”
Come, Sit, Stay, I thought reflexively. He’ll never learn. Still, I let him pull me onto his lap. I can’t help it. I just love the look of him this way, in costume without the mask.
“Yes?” I said, stroking his hair.
“Got a favor to ask. About Cassie.”
“I already told you, this is an inter-bat…”
“No. This is the Gotham City X-Factor.”
“Never mind. Look, about Cassie: Isn’t there some kind of Haagen Daaz thing you women do?” While I sat there, stunned, he picked up the mug and sipped. “Good cocoa.” Twitch.
I take it back.
He does learn.
Because this was new.
New for him. Others do it. Harvey. Eddie. Oswald. Dick does it beautifully: It’s the Clueless Guy appeal: “We are but poor simple creatures living out our lives in a testosterone fog. Allow us, oh good and gentle lady, to partake of your special female wisdom and see our way to the light.” To be followed by: “Oh for pity sake, Dickey, FINE, I’ll install your new video card for you, but this is the last time!”
It’s a maneuver, I’m certain, as old as Ra’s al Ghul himself. But it’s new coming from him. I am vengeance, I am justice, I am a poor clueless tripod? No way. When the Dark Knight is reduced to “Isn’t there some kind of Haagen Daaz thing you women do?” what choice does a girl really have but to smile, nod, and agree to help him out.
David Cain raised Cassie to be an unthinking killing-machine. The moment Batman took her off that path, teaching her not to kill and giving her new direction as a crimefighter, the seed was planted. She was a person, not a machine. She had a choice.
The killing machine David Cain programmed could never have disobeyed her sensei. His word was all there was. She could not even think to do otherwise, even to reject the idea.
But the girl Cassie had become could think beyond her sensei’s will. She could, in the great tradition of rebellious teens, think to examine Batman’s precise words, searching for a loophole: Batman had said she was not to continue searching for Greg Brady. He did not forbid her to patrol, he did not tell her to stop being Batgirl. She was a crimefighter. And Chinatown was as likely to suffer crime as any other part of town.
Yes, she knew Ra’s al Ghul kept his Gotham base there. Yes, now she knew Gregory was working for Ra’s. But surely that did not mean she should let crime happen in Chinatown. She was not “continuing to search” for Greg Brady, she was simply doing her job. Fighting crime. In Chinatown.
That was her thought swinging south through the West Village, through Soho, through TriBeCa, and finally reaching Chinatown itself. The thought froze at the entrance to the Canal Street Subway Station… for there, looking down to street level, she saw the sleek, eerily silent black of the Batmobile.
To be continued…