So I took a shower. Even with fresh knife wounds, it’s the best way to settle myself after a chaotic prowl. I had bound the cuts up fairly well, so there was only a slight sting here and there when the hot water hit.
My sponge was missing. This has become the norm and I’m going to have to get a new one. I would have already but I just hate letting him win this way. The sponge was a beautiful, soft, natural one—from Eddie, part of a gift basket he sent when he was in Key West back in January. Q.E.D. Bruce didn’t like it. It got “accidentally” moved to one of the guest rooms a few times. I found it on both occasions and brought it back. That was that, for a while. Then Eddie found out the secret and all of a sudden my sponge is gone again. When I found it this time, it was in Nutmeg’s stash under the bed, and it has her tooth marks in it. As often as I return the thing to its little shelf in the shower, it finds its way back to her stash. Yes, a cat will brave the shower, or any water, if the enticement is great enough. I’m not sure how Bruce got her interested, catnip oil most likely, but however he did it, it worked. Sneaky bat.
The sneaky bat was waiting for me, holding out a towel, when I stepped out of the shower. He started to say something, and then his eyes went square.
“What happened there,” he asked, glaring at the cuts on my arms and hip.
“Nothing much. Certainly nothing I couldn’t patch up mys—”
“Have Alfred look them over in the morning,” he graveled—and I’ve got to say, sexy as I find Batman’s voice in most circs, I was less than thrilled with it then. He was going to go all overprotective now and make a thing of it, I just knew it. “Sharks can smell a single drop of blood in the water from ten miles away, so—”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve seen the movie. Also, I think sixth grade science covered that. Um… sharks?”
Instead of handing me the towel, he moved behind and started drying my back.
“Sharks?” I repeated.
“You might be doing some diving soon.”
I didn’t have to dive for the initial meeting as it turned out. Aquaman was like a lot of clients; he liked doing business on his home turf, which was Atlantis. They think it gives them an edge in the negotiations or something. Little do they know; cats are never put off by a little thing like home field advantage. They outrank you wherever you hold the sit down. “A cat can look at a king” is the pertinent bit of catlore, not “Cats don’t like water.” Although I braced for that remark to be repeated every step of the way in this job by folks that thought they were clever. Not one of them would know the truth about Felines and H2O, and I wouldn’t bother to explain. Sea King wanted to meet in his capital city in the middle of the Atlantic, I didn’t mind.
Transporter in the Batcave connects to the Watchtower, and from there I could transport down to Atlantis. (There’s no direct connection from the Cave to anywhere but the Tower. Bruce’s orders. You really have to love that man. Meow.) But anyway, it was a simple, two-transport deal. Fast. Easy. Unwet. No need for some Atlantean conscript to come collect me in a shuttle-sub. I did have to wait for a noon-to-midnight window when Martian Manhunter would be on duty. Bruce and Aquaman agreed that “J’onn” was the most discreet and would ask no questions. Before his shift was Diana (“too many questions”), and after that was Plastic Man (“And you want NO part of that”).
Bruce was surprisingly cool about the whole thing. By noon, I was changed into costume and he met me down in the cave. I was pretty sure Aquaman hadn’t told him what this job was about. He kept saying he would “let Arthur explain it in his own way”—which had to mean that he didn’t know. He only answered one question I had before I left. It was an important one, but I’d been hesitant to raise the subject at all. Still, it was nagging me. So right before I stepped into the transporter, I asked it:
“He’s not going to be another Clark is he? You know ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match…’”
I would have sworn it would take a lethal-and-then-some dose of SmileX to make Bruce laugh inside the cowl. He never does it. Never. But evidently the thought of ‘Arthur’ playing matchmaker was sufficiently ridiculous, even to the Bat. It was a quick snorting chortle, not something the uninitiated would ever recognize as a laugh, but it was one and it was creepy as hell.
I was very relieved as far as my meeting with Aquaman, the idea of an entire faction in the Justice League campaigning about my love life was a lot more horrifying than Batman chortling.
They weren’t his kind of pictures.
There was little variety for one thing:
young girls mostly, pretending to be sophisticated and sexy years before
they even understood what went on between women and men.
And housewives, middle-aged and then some, trying to be young and
alluring again. Lies. They were decent portraits, some of them. Leon liked to
experiment with the lighting and filters, and the manager didn’t mind as long
as he kept on schedule. He had
created some truly stunning effects, definitely some pure visual moments, but
not one of them could be called truth.
Like this blonde in the Robin outfit. She
had the kind of eyes that writers embarrass themselves trying to describe.
This is what photography was about: eyes like that and then putting on
a mask around them, it was one fucking fantastic visual.
It just wasn’t true. That
girl was no Robin, no way, no how. She was just the best goddamn picture Leon
had taken in eight months.
He couldn’t waste it. Every artistic impulse he ever had screamed that a visual like that must not be wasted. He cropped off the stupid Robin stuff and blew up the perfect square of the girl’s masked face into an extreme close-up. It was something. Leon wondered if his manager might consider it for the ads in the store.
Probably not, though, those pictures were part of the décor, they probably came from corporate, professional models and all… Leon looked down at the stunning eyes of the close-up becoming more stunning as the image continued to develop.
A moment captured could be a pure visual moment without being true… “A pure
visual moment, whether true or lie,” he heard himself saying as he imagined
showing his portfolio to a gallery owner. “I
compare moments of pure visual clarity that express truth juxtaposed with those
equally vivid that express untruth.”
“Hello, Selina,” the Martian greeted me at the tubes.
“Hi, Ï’ônń,” I winked.
“You’re expected below,” he told me fussing with the dials. “But you’ll have to wait a few minutes for your biorhythms to recover from the first transport before undergoing another.”
I knew Martian Manhunter slightly. He had shuttled me back to Gotham after the Prometheus mess, and I had asked him some questions because, well, why be rude. It’s a longer trip than the transporter; you don’t want to just sit there in silence. So we chatted.
He told me he goes by J’onn on Earth; it’s close to the ubiquitous “John,” easy for English-speakers. That is a little too much coincidence for anybody to swallow, so I asked about his real name. Wasn’t meant to be any kind of great bonding thing, it was small talk. That seemed the way to go after turning the tide against the crazy with a gadget who had flattened the entire Justice League. So I asked about his real name. He brushed it off and we rode in silence for a while, then for no particular reason, he started to explain.
His people are telepaths, so his name wouldn’t be “spoken” so much as zinged into someone’s brain when he met them the way we say “how do you do.” This didn’t strike me as any way to run a polite society; I don’t even like giving out my email.
He got a funny look at that moment that I strongly suspect was a Martian chuckle.
Now when the guy who just introduced himself as a telepath seems to chuckle at your unspoken thought about the e-mail, you can’t help but consider the possibility that he might be peeking into your brain. And if he had, that meant he’d also heard “no way to run a polite society.” I really didn’t want to insult him. First Prometheus slaps him into a state of spastic paralysis and some criminal cat burglar that only snuck into their lunar clubhouse for the Storm Opals has to save him and his whole sorry team, then he gets the fun of shuttling her home because Batman is busy being a jackass, and then on top of all that she’s slamming his culture. No. That is not the feline way. So I told him to zing. It seemed the best way to make a gesture. He said a human tongue wouldn’t be able to pronounce his name, but I asked again. I was a bit curious by then anyway, a name that could only be expressed telepathically, what could it be? After a little more prodding, he agreed.
He sent the name twice into my mind, and the only way I can describe it is that a part of it felt like Paris and the smell of this little bookstall by the Seine when it had been raining. I tried my best at reproducing what I’d “heard,” and he said I have a cute accent. He said it with a very curious look, one that was not—decidedly not—a Martian chuckle.
I winced. Because the Paris flash had caused me to infuse the word with a rather French pronunciation. It seemed right, this thought, this name, was closer to Paris than to anything else in my experience. And the one thing the Parisians do not find remotely charming is any kind of accent. You speak their beautiful language correctly or you should not be speaking it at all. And the one word I’d ever heard of this man’s language had conjured Paris in my brain. If his people were at all like the French, I’d probably pained him more with that ‘cute accent’ than Prometheus had with the gadget.
“Oh, not at all,” he cut me off (and now it was clear he had been eavesdropping on my thoughts).
“Not really,” he said, “I would never intentionally enter another’s mind without their knowledge and consent. It is merely that some thoughts are ‘shouted,’ essentially, at a volume it is difficult not to overhear.” Here he paused for an unambiguous chuckle of the regular human-looking variety before continuing. “If I may say, Catwoman, yours is one of those minds which becomes very excited—and consequently rather loud—when exposed to new ideas.
“My expression just then had nothing to do with your accent, which is indeed most charming. It is merely that—I have never heard a human accent speaking my language before. And that was quite intriguing.”
Batman would never have explained a look. At the time, I wouldn’t have thought any hero would. At the time, that’s what surprised me the most about our conversation. Today, the thought that struck me was very different: nobody had ever asked about his name before? All this time on Earth, all his colleagues—his friends—in the League and elsewhere, they never asked? They’re not even human, half of them, one or two at least can probably come closer than Ï’ônń.
“Arthur can,” he told me conversationally. “But Arthur is a telepath. But no, apart from him, the others never brought it up.”
“Was I shouting my thoughts again,” I asked sweetly.
“Screaming them,” he smiled back. “Something has excited the cat’s curiosity. This isn’t your first time in the transporters, surely?”
I shook my head. “First time visiting Atlantis,” I explained. “What can you tell me?”
“That Batman doesn’t like it down there. Which is probably why Arthur invited you. They’ve already sent the All Clear, by the way, a very efficient operation. Arthur told them to be ready at noon Eastern U.S. time, and they sent the Ready at 11:45. But you should wait a few minutes more before the second transport, it’s quite taxing physically.”
So we made small talk again. I like what little I’ve seen of Ï’ônń. He reminds me a bit of Harvey in a way, doesn’t quite fit into the social circles he’s landed in, but making the best of it. He asked, rather perfunctorily, about Bruce and then, with more enthusiasm, about Dick and Barbara. I told him briefly about their “new arrival,” the as yet unnamed cat-formerly-known-as-Flummox. After a few minutes chit-chat, he made the inevitable joke about cats and water (that’s one) and sent me on to Atlantis.
“I’ve got to admit, I’m impressed,” I told my host sincerely. “I’ve worked for royalty before, and I’ve had VIP treatment plenty of times, but this is the first time I’ve ever been met at the door by an actual king.”
Aquaman laughed. He’s one of those that puts a lot of energy into a laugh. You get the feeling that he doesn’t do it often, like he saves it up for special occasions.
“No choice, really,” he said at last, “If I didn’t meet you myself, protocol dictates that visitors entering by way of the JLA-transporter be escorted to the throne room by the Prime Consular, which is currently Vulko. And as this is your first visit, Vulko would consider it his duty to give you the full tour, including the complete history of the infinite-bubble motif on the Grand Arch as it is echoed throughout every dome and arced spire in Atlantia. I am proud of my home, Catwoman, and I want visitors to see it as I do, not through the eyes of an architecture sophist.”
He did show me his favorite spots, only briefly pointing out the “Grand Arch” with the infinite bubble motif and focusing instead on a garden of sea willows and a coral tower that was the highest organic point in the city.
“The absolute highest point,” he was quick to add, “is the Palace spire, a half-meter taller than the tower, but the tower has a better view. A 360 degree panorama of the city; it’s a breathtaking sight. And a favorite spot for the artistically inclined to go up and paint the view.”
Of course, he touched on the Travelogue stuff you’d get in any tour: Most of the city is covered by a large clear dome with only a handful of smaller domed outcroppings. A large majority of the population is strictly water-breathing, so a large portion of the city is submerged. There are a handful of “dual-breathers” (both air and water) that live in the city, though most prefer to live underwater. But there are a good number of dual-breathers who live above the surface in the open-air portion of the city. The only exclusive air-breathers in Atlantis are visitors like me. The water level in the city can actually be raised and lowered, though it is rarely done except once a year for the annual Migration Festival. During the Festival, the entire dome is filled so that everyone has free access to the entire city and the water-breathers can swim up to the top of the dome to view the migrations and festivities.
The palace, which I had transported into, was the largest structure in the city and home to all the royal consulars, ministers, guardsmen and their families. It was also the only building that could fill and drain its rooms independently of the rest of the city.
“This is especially important in the primary chambers of the palace—the Ministers’ council rooms, the Throne Room, the Great Hall and the royal residence,” he explained. As he showed me first the consular chamber, then the ministers’ chamber, then the Great Hall, it became apparent that a number of these rooms had been drained of their water and pumped full of air for my visit.
“You’ve gone to a great deal of trouble,” I noted. “Why? You could have met me at the Watchtower, or even a Starbucks on the pier.”
“I wanted to see if you would come,” he said. “Cats and water.” (That’s two.) “And of course, it would annoy Bruce.”
I laughed. “Ï’ônń said the same thing. I’m honestly starting to think you people put more thought into tweaking Bruce’s nose than my crowd does.”
“What did you say?”
“You people, the Watchtower crowd, you think more about how Bruce is going to react to something than—”
“No, no. What you called J’onn!” And then he burst out with one of those ‘been-saving-this-up-all-day’ laughs. “‘Ï’ônń.’ I’ll have to remember that.”
“Look, if he’s got me saying something like ‘I lost my bra in the Alexandrian oil lamp,’ I’d just as soon not know.”
“Nothing like that,” Aquaman assured me—except—it’s interesting—he wasn’t Aquaman anymore. He was doing one of those shifts, but not like Bruce going into Bat-mode. Still, it was a shift. Informally, the JLA bunch call him “Arthur”—and the man walking with me now nobody would ever call Arthur. I wondered if he had a King-mode just like the others had a Hero-mode.
I didn’t have to wonder long, because, at that moment, he opened a large set of double doors in front of us and I saw into…
“The Throne Room, this is the heart of Atlantean Government—and where protocol dictates I receive a guest such as you on business such as this.”
He looked at me rather pointedly. I didn’t have to be a telepath to get the vibe that he didn’t want to talk here—it was too cavernous and too stately to have any kind of real conversation—but he didn’t want to say so.
I shrugged. “Let’s not and say we did,” I suggested.
He didn’t say a word, but led me through the throne room and into a much simpler room in the back.
“My private office,” he said—and I noted that his King-mode, like Bruce’s Bat-mode, had a different voice.
King Orin (a.k.a. Aquaman in royal/business mode, at least that’s how the flunky at the door addressed him) wasted no time getting down to it once we were seated in his private office.
“I expect you read in the newspaper about the situation in California, that a small part of San Diego wound up under water after that last earthquake.”
“The newspapers exaggerated, didn’t they? Like the whole Gotham quake and ‘No Man’s Land’ stuff.”
“Yes and no,” he said with a bitter laugh. “They exaggerated the scale of what’s submerged. But the more sensational details, that there are hundreds of people living down there, genetically altered to become water-breathers if something like that occurred. That is sadly and disgustingly accurate.”
He slid a folder across the table. I knew what it was going to contain. I slid it back, unopened.
“Look,” I explained crisply, although I was quite sure I was wasting my breath. “You can skip over the whole Hero-Hire 101 bit. I’ve done three of these over the years. I know you guys think it’s very important to lay it on thick about all the humanitarian reasons why the job needs done, and click off each and every reason why you feel it’s necessary to bend some laws to make that happen. But here’s the thing: you’re already paying me. It’s a job. You don’t need to sell me on it past that, not as long as the check clears.”
“You’re a very interesting creature,” he said thoughtfully. I thought I detected relief, like maybe he was actually pleased to finally have somebody he didn’t have to convince. Then he slid the folder back. “Oblige me,” he said, gesturing to it. Typical. Heroes are obstinate, mulish, obsessives—in the air, under sea, in caves, planes, trains… “You can skip the first ten. Those are ‘the hero-humanitarian bit.’”
Hm. Obstinate, mulish obsessive—but he can be taught. I opened the folder and skipped through the expected heartbreaking pictures of water-breathing survivors huddled in an underwater mall, convention center, amusement park… Real “give and give generously” stuff… He probably figures I’ll soften and kickback part of the fee. That’s the problem with taking these jobs. Word gets around: Cat’s a soft touch… When I flip past photo #10, I absolutely refuse to give him the satisfaction, not the smallest gasp escapes me—but I must admit, photo #11 was a pretty shocking image.
“That’s baby boy Pfeifer, born two days ago. The first new arrival since they went under…”
It was a baby all right, tiny as they come.
“…Seven pounds, six ounces.” He paused, his face solemn. “An air-breather.” He paused again, letting the full weight of what he had said sink in. “The mutation didn’t take. We’ve got dozens more pregnant women down there, and we have no idea how many, if any, children of water-breathers will be able to survive the environment they’re born into. We got that one to the surface in time—barely. We can’t count on being able to do it again—and again and again, every blasted time. We need pressurized incubators, infant breathing tubes, the list goes on and on. And time is a factor.”
“And that’s why you want me instead of doing it through more official… ‘legal’ channels?”
This look fluttered across his face—quickly, but long enough for me to recognize it. It’s the same look Bruce gets whenever he hears that one of the rogues has broken out of Arkham. Again.
“The surfacers—the surface government, I should say, the bureaucrats and opportunists—know we need this and we need it ‘yesterday.’ I’ve told them it has to happen, that they have to make it happen, period.”
“Yes. Oops. I’m a king, Catwoman, not a councilman. I’m used to giving orders.”
“I know. Bruce told me you have zero-tolerance for bullshit and you don’t suffer fools. Personally, I like that in a man. But eh, it doesn’t play too well with politicos.”
“So I’ve learned. It seems that even the lives of those ‘constituents’ they claim to love so much come second to their own power-greed. Honestly, every time I think I have a handle on the surfacer mindset, someone comes along and blows my theories out of the water.” There was a barely contained hostility in his voice, a frustration that I’ve seen before, many times—at the Iceberg. Harvey, Eddie, Jervis, sometimes Pam. Always means the same thing: Thwarted! They had a plan, it would have worked, and then the big bad Bat showed up and ruined the whole thing.
He took a deep breath and started again. “Anyway, now they can hold it all for ransom, drag their feet until the next woman goes into labor, or the next. Long as it takes to show me and everybody else who is really in charge. And if they get that upper hand, then all the funding for research, every dollar and resource meant to make those people’s lives bearable, any pretense of autonomous government they put together, it’s all a joke.”
“I rule Atlantis, and those poor people had the misfortune to become submerged on your Western Coast. The Pacific is simply too far away for me to keep a constant watch over it; the logistics, the travel time back and forth. This simply must be resolved to my satisfaction and quickly, not just for the sake of those babies. If it isn’t, then my every waking minute for years to come will be spent trying to provide for them, to assist them and to get them self-sufficient. And from here on out, every single decision involving those lost souls will be exactly the same—the same bickering, the same in-fighting, the same political bullshit. And I can’t allow that, Catwoman. I don’t have the time or the ability to put up with that shit for that long. Atlantis must come first.”
I smiled at that. I couldn’t help it. My way and My city. Heroes are adorable. Obstinate mulish obsessives, but adorable.
“…Look, I’m bringing you in because you’re the best. You’re the perfect person for the job. You snuck onto the goddamn Watchtower for Poseidon’s sake—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I cut him off. “Look, like I said, Bruce told me you don’t do BS, so let’s cut through all that ‘you’re the best’ crap and get to the bottom line. Makes for a shorter meeting.”
“How did a guy like Bruce ever manage to hook up with someone like you,” he murmured, shaking his head. And I noticed something I’d never seen happen with Bruce in Bat-mode: the King Orin façade was cracking a little. A hint of a smile and the ‘officialness’ in the air seemed to diminish just a touch.
“I think that’s fairly common knowledge in your circles,” I whispered with a smirk, “it was doing shit like this that you’re hiring me for. So can we get back to the—”
I stopped because he had scribbled something on a slip of paper and slid it across the table. There was a number written on it with an awful lot of zeroes.
“Cutting through the BS,” he said simply.
I looked down again at the figure he was proposing to pay, and nodded.
“I need it to be absolutely invisible,” he said. “No sign at all of a ‘theft.’ No sign of anything at all. That’s why I can’t use Atlantean troops or Leaguers, even if they would go along with it. Neither group is exactly what you would call low profile. This has to be perfect. Immediate, silent, and perfect. We just suddenly have all the equipment we needed. And I give them all the credit: so glad you saw it my way, realized the importance of getting this done…”
“i.e. did what you told them to.”
“Exactly. We understand each other, don’t we, Catwoman?”
I met his eyes.
“Well we have a deal, in any case.”
“Good. You know your assignment. We’ve agreed on price. Kelp okay or do you prefer it in salmon?”
Bruce had also mentioned the sense of –grunt– for lack of a better word –grunt– humor. I wrote down a number myself and slid the sheet of paper back.
“It’s a numbered account,” I said, simply to show myself un-awed by the hero that makes a joke. “If the Swiss will take your kelp, that’s fine with me.”
“The Swiss? Damn land-locked, neutrality-addicted fuckers. I’ll work it out with them.”
I took that as a handshake, and that concluded our meeting. He stood, smiling broadly.
“Well, since you’re here, could I interest you in some dinner? Unless, of course, Bruce is expecting you back…“A small, devilish smile crossed his lips. “In which case, I can offer you a spare room for the night.”
Bruce stopped, blinked, and blinked again. “Hey Bruce,” Harvey Dent smiled, “I hear Selina’s out of town, so I told Jeeves I’d better see you instead. I really need a hand on this one. It’s a two-man job, if you know what I mean.”
Bruce fought with every nerve and muscle on his face to betray no expression
that might prove suspicious. He was
quite certain that, although he still suffered palpitations, the hallucinations
were long past. What he was seeing—although it defied any logical explanation—was real.
Harvey Dent’s face was completely whole.
To be continued…