In the many years since he designed Strategic Self-Mutating Defense Regimen 4, Batman always maintained a healthy and detached view of the training program. It was a tool for honing fighting skills, not a malevolent entity. Dick and Tim might call it Zogger and speak of it like a living thing. Anthropomorphism, Bruce noted, or attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects, was a healthy and natural response to the rigors of Robin training. But Batman had more mental discipline that that. While emotion, properly channeled, could be enormously useful in the fighting arts, he reserved his anger for the criminal scum that plagued his city. He did not waste it on a training program.
However, holding the jacket of his hand-stitched gi slashed nearly in two by Zogger’s vicious slicing arm, Batman regarded Strategic Self-Mutating Defense Regimen 4 with the grisly scowl usually reserved for alley-dwelling gangbangers playing cop-killer rap.
“This was new,” he told the control console, showing it the ripped fabric before pivoting and walking off to the costume vault. A brand new, hand-stitched gi, two months in the making by one of the only craftsmen left in Japan that still practiced the nearly lost art. Prior to the 1940s, a hand-stitched gi was the martial artist’s practice garment of choice. But mass production edged out more and more of the skilled artisans, and soon a hand-stitched gi became more expensive than most martial artists could afford. Craftsmen became fewer and fewer, the price rose higher and higher, and as the market shrank, the craftsmen became fewer still.
But Selina said he should treat himself. What was the point in splurging on expensive scotch he didn’t even drink just to play the fop at d’Annunzio’s if he wouldn’t do as much for an extravagance he might actually enjoy? They were in Tokyo, he was one of the best martial artists in the world, why not indulge a little?
He caved. He let her tempt him. Why did he always let her tempt him?
He changed into costume, leaving the gi on the vault floor for Alfred to find and send for repair.
Jervis Tetch enjoyed spreading other people’s news more than his own. He had told the story once on arriving at the Iceberg. That was necessary to explain the lump which caused his signature size 10/6 hat to slope lopsided upon his throbbing head. He told the tale once already, and once a ready tale is told once, one oughtn’t to tell it again, for then it is told twice, and twice is twice once, so it can’t be a once told tale, once it’s told twice…
“And as time is money, it follows that money is time. And these women took all my money, so I haven’t any time to tell the tale again.”
Two-Face made an angry gurgling sound that Sly recognized as imminent rage.
“Now Mr. Dent,” the bartender warned, “Mr. Hatter has a concussion. You have to make allowances.” As he spoke, Sly sat two double shot glasses on the bar before Two-Face and filled each with 22-year old double-malt scotch.
“We do not make allowances,” Two-Face growled, “He is always like that. And even if he weren’t, it is double-talk. We do not make allowances for double-talk.”
Despite his dangerous tone, Two-Face sat quietly and sipped the drink on the left. Tempting fate, Jervis looked at the second glass.
“Did I mention those women took all my money?”
Two-Face shot a look at the unflappable bartender as if to say: Even you must realize this is too much; the little shit is asking for it.
Out came the coin, and even before it was airborne, the bar patrons scurried like townsfolk in a cheesy western.
The coin was flipped. It was caught. And Two-Face looked at its shiny, unmarred surface in disgust.
“Join us for a drink, Jervis,” he said with the flat monotone of a hatted drone, for indeed he had no more choice in the matter once the coin had spoken.
“Happy to,” Jervis twittered and pointed to the second scotch. “Sly, my good man, would you pour this into a larger glass with soda water and lemon juice, add some powder sugar, an egg, and three dashes of Curacao.”
“One Derby Fizz,” Sly said, reclaiming the shot glass and preparing the drink.
“You would do that to good scotch?” Harvey Dent’s voice sounded horrified, the indignant prosecutor outlining a ghastly crime for the jury. He looked back and forth from Jervis to Sly before pronouncing his verdict, “You fiends.”
“It’s my job, Mr. Dent,” Sly said apologetically, setting the drink before Jervis Tetch.
“Sly,” Harvey said, assuming his most congenial and persuasive courtroom manner, “You were here earlier when Jervis told this famous story we have yet to hear. Surely, after making us witness this horror of our best 22-year old double malt being transmogrified into a—shudder—Derby Fizz, you will kindly have the good grace to tell us that story.”
Sly looked to Jervis for approval.
“The heel marks still sting most piquantly,” Jervis said with his hand over his chest. “From the one, two! One, two! Where the vorpal shoe went snicker-snack. I’ll rest a wee under the Tum Tum Tree. You tell the tale.”
Sly nodded as if it all made perfect sense, and Jervis took his drink to a quiet corner booth. Sly turned back to Harvey.
“Mr. Tetch was the victim of what I think they call ‘a home invasion.’ A couple women burst into his hideout, beat him up and cleaned him out.”
The eyebrow on the Harvey side shot up, and on the Two-Face side, a curious rolling preceded the R as he enunciated a single word, “rrrReally?”
“Yes indeed,” Sly confirmed it, missing the smarmy inflection and continuing in tones of shocked dismay with which civilians discuss crime befalling someone they know. “And from what I hear, they’ve done it before. The Ghost Dragons said King Snake sent them after this pair after they ripped him off just two days ago.”
“A pair of lady thieves who strike criminal targets at two day intervals?” Two-Face was fascinated. The coin materialized in his fingers, and after a flip he asked, “What do you know about their costumes?”
Sly glanced towards Jervis, safely out of earshot in his booth, and at Roxy, safely out of earshot at the jukebox. Then he looked back to Two-Face. In that brief span, Sly was transformed from ‘a civilian’ to ‘a man.’
“They wear yellow PVC halters trimmed in black. Matching bikini bottoms, gloves and boots.”
Two-Face downed his drink in a shot.
“Two women in two-piece costumes of PVC halters and matching bikini bottoms are on a two-day crime spree?” he said with a shaky voice, as if trying to wrap his brain around the image.
Sly nodded. “I think the outfits are their circus costumes. They’re supposed to be a high wire act or something. The Merlot or Marso sisters.”
“Sisters?” Two-Face asked weakly.
Criminal parasites preying on his city. Batman found them outside the music conservatory, lying in wait like vultures. There was a Paganini program tonight, not the A-list beautiful people, but an affluent, respectable crowd: Lots of Wall Street and plastic surgeons. Lots of BMWs and Lexus. It was the latter the vultures were circling for. The more straightforward scum were here to steal the cars outright. They were not hard to identify: their motion on the street—checking the makes of the cars—checking sight lines—and then little nods to each other. Straightforward car thieves with orders to fill, specific makes and models.
He hated it, but Batman let them continue their foul work unfettered. He could easily intervene, but that would spook the deadlier scum. All he could do was snap a few pictures with the infrared camera and send them to the BatComputer to begin the 30-point analysis against mugshots in the database. Once they selected a car, he would see if he could risk firing a tracer-bug. It all depended on which car they picked. He wouldn’t chance the tracer if his firing it off could be seen by the greater threat: that pair by the portico. That pair, that were not sizing up the cars but the patrons. From their position, they could see a few of the cars parked in the street, but mostly what they would see was the plaza where the patrons came for a smoke at intermission. They would see who was bejeweled, and who had a gold cigarette case. And then, after the show, they would lock on to those targets and strike. Carjacking was not so efficient as stealing an empty vehicle, and those pros now driving off in the Lexus would not dream of it. Dealing with the victims was messy, and the punishments when they were caught would be severe. But that pair by the portico, Batman knew their kind and how they thought: the jewels on the doctor’s wife would compensate them for the extra risk.
Not that anyone in this crowd would have anything to Catwoman’s tastes back when she… …Damn her… …At least it was the music conservatory and not the opera house.
In the shadows, Batman watched the scum at the portico sizing up their targets, his fist curling into a tight coil of rage.
They deserved this. This would be Justice. The righteous fury of virtue against vice, the triumph of decency over thuggery. And they would make a very satisfying thump when they hit the ground.
Gotham City had more single people per capita than any other location in the world. The dating scene was an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of restaurants, clubs, and trends. For Lawrence Muskelli, the status of carriage rides was particularly hard to keep track of: they were in, they were out, they were romantic, they were hokey, they were for tourists, they were for anyone with a true love of the city and the park.
Renee had thanked Lawrence for a wonderful meal, and they strolled from the quaint bistro on 64th street south towards the edge of the park. There they could easily grab a taxi from the queues at the many hotels or pop into the Plaza for a drink. And there, as the rows of hansom cabs lined Robinson Park South, he could point them out and gauge her views before asking.
Unfortunately, when the moment came, he found himself stuck for a suitably noncommittal remark. “Carriage rides bring such a sense of continuity to the park” would sound like he was hosting a travel video. And “Some of the drivers still wear livery” would make him sound like a dork. So instead, he just pointed out the Maine Monument at the southwest entrance.
Renee looked towards it—and then there was a stream of unintelligible Spanish as she stormed through the Merchant’s Gate into the park. Lawrence had been dating Renee long enough to know that Spanish in a stream meant trouble. A word or two every few sentences was a good sign, it meant she was unwinding. But when it flowed like water as it had just now, that meant she was pissed. He was pretty sure nobody hated the hansom cabs that much, so he assumed she’d seen something past them in the park itself that offended her.
Huntress had the perp strung up by his ankles, hanging from a cypress tree that overhung the bridle path. She prodded his middle with an arrow as she questioned him.
“Your supplier, Maggot! Tell me now or—”
When from behind her, she heard the crunch of feet on twigs. Someone behind her, not bothering to disguise their presence. A Bat-somebody, no doubt, ready to weigh in with the objections: Loose Cannon. Irresponsible. Violent. Rash.
“Let that man down.”
It wasn’t a voice she expected, and Huntress turned with a petulant sneer to see who it was. It was that policewoman turned sellout, Montoya, looking at her like she was a rowdy teenager pulled out from a rock concert for climbing the truss. Who was she to be barking orders anyway? Let the maggot down, indeed.
“Or what?!” Huntress challenged, practically spitting the words.
“You are a selfish, ungrateful brat,” Montoya declared. Helena recognized the tone. It was the same one she used in the classroom, with the inner city kids that weren’t half as tough as they let on. “I stood up for you people. I said vigilantes do good in this city. I said we need them to fill the void and do what police can’t. They can be trusted to do that, I said. And this is what I get in return! You’re a disgrace to everyone who wears a mask. You make the others look bad by association and you spit on everyone who stood up for you. You let that man down or I put you over my knee right here, right now.”
The horizon was beginning to purple by the time Batman returned to the cave. By the time Bruce reached the bedroom, it was pink. By the time his head sank into the pillow, the first shafts of luminous glow cut through the morning mist, infusing the air with a tart grassy smell of unripe grapes.
A kiss brushed his cheek.
“My, but you’re late. Rough night?”
“Go away, Kitten.”
“Oh, one of those moods. Well, I’ll let you sleep it off if you’re that tired, Handsome. But I had hoped we could talk. I haven’t seen you since before Renee left.”
“I… wasn’t avoiding you,” Bruce lied. “I went down to the cave.”
“Ah, playing with the new toys?”
“The video camouflage gear,” he corrected automatically. “No. I wanted to work out.”
“Well you didn’t miss much. The Blackgate thing was a joke. Not that I’ve ever seen the place up close and personal, but one would imagine they’d have better security than that…”
Bruce seethed. She was flaunting her criminal past—flaunting it right in his face. No, she’d never been in Blackgate. She had to ask Barbara to pull the blueprints off the city systems because she’d never even seen the lobby! Catwoman had never been captured and she had to rub it in. That’s what that curio was about. Rubbing it in. Flaunting it. “Never caught me, Handsome. Not up to the scratch. Reowrl.”
“…if security is even the word. I mean a painting like that…”
“It’s a prison,” he pointed out, controlling his growing anger, “I don’t think guarding the artwork is a high priority.”
“That’s my point. Why have it there at all? A painting like that in the lobby, security doesn’t even enter into it. Owning any work of art is a privilege, and if they don’t have the sense or judgment to put it somewhere appropriate….”
Bruce sat up in bed and stared at her in wonder.
“Sense. And JUDGMENT?” he exploded at last. “SENSE AND JUDGMENT to put it somewhere APPROPRIATE??? Like in someone’s house, right? That is where stolen property belongs, isn’t it! In the home! Selina, what were you THINKING?”
She looked confused, which only enraged him further.
“What the HELL were you thinking??? And what the hell did this MEAN TO YOU???”
The silence was probably much shorter than it seemed to Bruce. To Bruce it felt like a minute.
“First,” she said finally, a calm poised tone, “this isn’t a rooftop, and it’s not a cattle drive, so I’ll ask you to reconsider your tone of voice. Second…” she paused and then bit off each word crisply, “thinking—about—what?”
“You know EXACTLY what I’m talking about, Candice.”
She looked more confused than ever.
His voice dripped with uncharacteristic sarcasm as he pointed into the corner towards the offending cat sculpture and spat, “I figured that must be one of your ‘aliases,’ considering the carving in the curio.”
Again she paused, cocked her head, and then smiled broadly. Her delight, Bruce would later realize, was nothing more than simple relief in having finally figured out what he was talking about, but at the time, he only saw Catwoman basking in the glow of her felonious victories:
“Oh, the little blue one! Isn’t he the cutest thing? I always loved that one. A little kitschy, but cute.”
“Kitschy. But expensive enough though, right?”
“Well not compared to some,” she smiled.
“Then why steal it in the first place?” he asked through clenched teeth.
“I would have thought that was obvious, Stud. It’s a cat.” She looked amused as hell.
“How astute,” he graveled.
“Just checking: you did know I was Catwoman when you asked me to move in, right?”
“Of course I did, Selina. But I expected a little more courtesy than you bringing the spoils of your illicit activities here.”
“Time out. ‘The spoils of your illicit activities?’ If you’re going to be this pompous, you might want to pop downstairs and change, because the judgmental jackass bit really doesn’t play so well in the bathrobe.”
“Neither does your sarcasm. And it’s not the judgmental jack— the law and order thing; it is not the law and order thing. It is a simple matter of respect. It is stolen property—”
“Bullshit. It is ME, and you knew that from day one.”
“Yes, I knew. I just didn’t expect you to flaunt your criminal…” he broke off, sputtering, choking on indignant frustration “…right in front of me…” he broke off again and glared, then resumed, calmer and resolute, “Then again, why wouldn’t you. It’s not like you haven’t been doing it all along.”
“And you loved it,” she said simply.
“NO!” he shouted, winced at the lapse of control, then repeated the word in a calmer tone, “No. I loved— love… you. But I never loved what you did, because what you did was wrong.”
“Well that refrain was overdue.”
“Impossible. You are the most maddeningly impossible woman. Selina, don’t you ever regret anything you’ve done?”
“Cats… do not… regret.”
“I didn’t ask about cats, I asked you.”
“Same thing, lover.”
“No. It’s not.”
To be continued…