Selina always found the couture boutiques of Gotham’s upper eastside to be stuffier than those in Milan or Paris, and she didn’t particularly need a new dress for the MoMA opening. Yet there she was, strolling down Madison Avenue eyeballing windows full of strapless, sequined, silken concoctions that wouldn’t really suit her.
Still, she found herself stopping in at Ralph Lauren, at Emanuel Ungaro… and finally where she knew all along she’d wind up, at Dior, with her favorite salesman Vince rushing to get her a glass of Pouilly Fuisse and gushing nonstop about the new goddess dresses that were simply made for her figure.
Selina sipped her wine and smiled patiently while Vince screamed for Brigitte to get into “the red goddess number four” for Ms. Kyle. This is what she would have done back in the day, after all. Prior to any gala like the MoMA opening, she would come to Dior, Vince would scream for Brigitte, and before long Selina herself would be in the fitting room getting pinned into a mockup of red goddess number four or whatever it was… It wasn’t the dress itself, of course; it was the fitting room that was the goal. The Dior fitting room just before a big society gala was always Catwoman’s favored source of information about the new target.
And even if the MoMA wasn’t a target anymore, Selina wanted this; she wanted this touch of the past. Ever since Bruce mentioned (far too casually) that the invitation had come for the gala, some part of her knew she would be sitting at Dior, sipping Pouilly Fuisse while Vince screamed for Brigitte.
Oswald asking her to come see him simply provided the excuse. She wasn’t expected at the Iceberg until afternoon, yet she’d come into town almost as early as Bruce had, leaving herself with hours to fill amidst her favorite pre-heist haunts.
She knew too what to expect in the fitting room: the backs of heads (and occasionally faces reflected in the mirror) as she passed the changing stalls, the warble of familiar voices... Binky Sherborn, Bunny Wigglesworth, Gladys Ashton-Larraby... Then, while some gorgeous bands of red crepe were crisscrossed into position across her bust, she would hear those telling words about the Stanton girl “going to show off that oh so vulgar ruby necklace she claims is a family heirloom but we all know was a present from the lover, that Hollywood film actor, who else could be so crass and vulgar, a twelve-carat stone surrounded by fifty diamonds. How terribly, terribly nouv—Oh hello, Selina darling! I see you’re trying that red one. How nice to be so tall. Of course darling Brucie has given you something fabulous to set it off, I’m sure…”
Much as she wanted to hiss, Selina said nothing that would derail the instructive conversation about jewels and jewelry. The comment about Bruce merely settled amidst a dozen other unsettling thoughts.
“Stay away from that Van Gogh.” That’s what he had said that last night on the MoMA’s roof. In a sense, it was the last thing he ever said to her as Batman. After that night, after that moment…
It was like they were throwing a party
to celebrate that he’d won, that’s what the gala felt like.
Some pagan ritual to mark the great milestone: Catwoman was gone, the
Catwoman of that night anyway. “Now
that you’ve hung up your whiskers,” Eddie had said.
The Van Gogh was safe, the twelve-carat ruby surrounded by fifty
diamonds… Let the champagne flow, ladies, the Cat’s out of business!
“I know the real story,” Eddie had said.
He didn’t, but he knew the pertinent facts.
“You, Bruce, and not so much anymore with the best thief in
Selina stared into the mirror, breathtaking in goddess dress number four, the deep reds making a stunning contrast with her coloring, the plunging neckline showcasing her beautiful figure. Viewed objectively, Selina knew she was a vision of feline allurement…
“Massage the old ego now that you’ve hung up your whiskers.”
…but never had she felt less like a cat.
Talia returned with Gr’oriBr’di to the DEMON base in Chinatown. It was the least distressing part of the return to Gotham, up until they reached the door to the White Dragon curio shop. Chinatown, unlike the rest of Beloved’s city, was free of all those haunting reminders. There were no Catworthy advertisements or MoMA banners “sponsored by the Wayne Foundation.” Talia began to feel herself again. No reminders of the ruinous disasters before the mud of camping… and no mud. There was no ick of mud in her boots to focus on, no grit in her hair, and there was a decent lunch on the horizon, as soon as Gr’oriBr’di concluded his business here: hot foie gras on brioche toast perhaps, or poached salmon Florentine, and a nice lemon soufflé.
Yes, Talia was beginning to feel very much herself again, like a glorious butterfly who had slept too long in a rotting cocoon of failure, disappointment, and mud. She felt as if she’d just taken the first truly free breath of her life when the door to the White Dragon opened, and a minion in Ajax garb flung himself face down onto the pavement at her feet, wailing in broken Farsi his homage to the Great One’s Daughter, and swearing his loyalty no less than to the Great One himself—may Anubis protect them all from the devils of this cursed city and the snares of He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken.
“Rise!” Talia ordered imperiously, reflexively snapped into her old manner by this familiar homage.
“Well you’re new,” Gr’oriBr’di muttered to himself as the man rose—not to his feet but to his knees. Greg Brady rolled his eyes.
“In’Qel,” he called inside, “Look busy, boss is comin’.”
After a few moments of hysterical cries and thumpings from the backroom, In’Qel appeared with an impish grin. “What ho, Boss-man,” he pronounced carefully, “No worries… I ‘cover’ for you.” Then he saw Talia, his eyes grew wide, and he too threw himself facedown on the floor, flung his arms out full at his sides, and began chanting obsequious apologies in his native Burmese.
Greg turned to Talia. “I think it might be better if you go shopping for a while, Tee.”
After her fitting at Dior, Selina stopped in at the Iceberg as Oswald had asked. It was early afternoon, and the nightclub was not yet open for business, so she was surprised to see Sly already behind the bar.
“Only chance I’ll get to catch up on the inventory,” he explained. “We’ve been so busy these last nights, between the empty bottles and the breakages. Kinda like Mardi Gras for rogues.”
“What’s the occasion?” Selina asked. “Did I miss another grand Post exposé like Ice having a girlcrush on Wonder Woman?”
“Nah, nothin’ like that, but, boy, what a number they did on Mr. Nigma, huh? I’ve never seen anything so far off what a person really looks like—well, except for you, of course, Miss Catwoman.”
“Meow,” Selina winked, acknowledging the compliment.
“You can go on back,” Sly said amiably, “Mr. Cobblepot is waiting for you in his office.”
To further thank Sly for his loyal remarks about the Post’s deplorable renderings of Catwoman, Selina treated him to an especially feline walk as she strolled down the hallway towards Oswald’s office. The next few minutes were taken up with quacking and social formalities, and then, at last, Oswald got down to business.
“An opportunity, my felonious feline, an opportunity that is truly ‘Catworthy,’ as that billboard says, an opportunity too grand to be squandered on the common rabble, an opportunity as rare and valuable as the priceless treasures you purloin from Wayne and his circle with such delicious dexterity.”
“Ozzy, you’re not going to start singing to me, are you?”
“Pshaw, my felicitous feline,” he began. Then, noting a dangerously disapproving expression, he changed to a detached businesslike tone. “Selina. I shan’t waste your time with idle flattery—although it is hardly flattery when it is all true.”
“Ozzy,” Selina repeated, closing her eyes in strained patience.
“Yes, -kwak- quite. I merely wished to impress upon you that I appreciate the Catwoman’s stature in the underworld, and have selected you for this ‘Catworthy’ boon precisely because it is so apropos to the elevated level you occupy above the common—”
“—horde. Yes, khm-kwak, quite. I shall come to the point.”
“That would be delightful,” Selina bit off each word distinctly with irate but controlled calm.
“What would you say,” Oswald asked with seductive charm, “if I could offer you a password to… temporarily… ‘shut off’ Batman, enabling you to end any confrontation or pursuit without fear of being followed or caught and—”
“What?” Selina interrupted, incredulous.
“A tantalizing notion, is it not?”
“Shut… off… Batman…” Again, each word was distinct, but the irritation—as well as the controlled calm—was no more.
“A simple password. You utter it; he stops. Interested? Or is it too ‘small-time’ to be of use to you?”
As one of the oldest and most powerful rogues in Gotham, Penguin had endured countless Bat-confrontations in his early days in the field, more than a few of which occurred during Hell Month. Although years had passed, he was still a man who had seen things. He was not easily shaken. Yet what occurred in the next moments he would be unable to relate in his usual style of affected gentility. “Turned my blood to spit” was as close as he could come to describing the sensation.
It was as though calm, stability, and safety were elements in the air, like water vapor, that were instantly removed by a powerful heat burst, leaving an aura of darkly volatile hatred in what had previously been pure, breathable oxygen. And at the same time, as if his very lungs reacted to breathing in this dangerous volatility, he felt a sick congealing in his chest and a pushing outward through his body as if the blood in his veins was trying to flee in panic.
The source of this… horrific -kwak- transformation was Selina, obviously, as she was the only other person in the room. She was… just sitting there, actually. She was just sitting there, not even in costume, just as she had been a moment before. She hadn’t moved a whisker, but somehow… somehow she was emitting this pulse of -kwak- -kwak-kwak-kwak- mortal dread. She was emitting this pulse of mortal dread that surely warned any sentient being that something absolutely unprecedented was about to occur, and as far as the continued existence of the universe was concerned, all bets were off.
“Oswald,” Catwoman spoke.
(It was Catwoman, costume or no, although Oswald could convince himself he could almost see the outline of the mask on her face.)
“Oswald, tell me everything, and I mean everything…”
(It was Catwoman, although Oswald had never heard the menace coiled into her voice that he heard now.)
“And maybe, just maybe, if I’m satisfied, I won’t sink my nails into that fat, fleshy neck of yours and start clawing out chunks with my bare hands, until there’s just windpipe left to THROTTLE YOU ‘TIL YOU DIE!”
From her early days as Batgirl to her emergence as Oracle, Barbara had never been the kind of crimefighter that ate, slept, and breathed the job. It was five in the morning when she discovered this SiegmundFledermaus character buying Batarangs on ebay. She was tired, she went to bed, and her subconscious was content to serve up visions of a cat called Flummox jumping into a gondola on the Grande Canal in Venice, where she and Dick spent their honeymoon; of a large willowy tree on a lake at the summer camp she visited when she was ten; and a goldfish called Sam she’d had when she was five.
She awoke with no thought of SiegmundFledermaus or anything else related to Oracle’s activities the night before. She rolled onto her side, kissed Dick’s shoulder and pinched his bottom affectionately. “Finest tush in the super community,” she said aloud—to which Dick, seemingly in his sleep, murmured that natural redheads were better than solo in the center ring, quad-somersault, standing ovation, and a chocolate sundae—with pecans.
Barbara smirked and maneuvered her body into the chair. A few minutes later, she wheeled into the kitchen, fed Bytes (“the cat formerly known as Flummox,” as Selina called it), and poured herself a glass of juice…
…the juice glass overflowed as the thought settled in. Siegmund-Fledermaus!!! Barbara scrambled to set down the glass, to turn the chair towards the kitchen door—to turn back and set down the carton on the counter—knocked over the glass, found a towel and wiped up the spilled juice—and finally wheeled herself out to the computer and pulled up her final screen from the night before.
Hugo Strange in all his dysfunctional bat-obsessed glory, how tired could she have been that she didn’t dive into this at once?
It was still daylight when Selina left the Iceberg. It was the middle of the afternoon and she was in civilian clothes, there was no way she could go up to Cartier’s roof, her favorite spot to think. She tried going into the store itself, but was immediately accosted by salesmen who knew her on sight. The fact that she was Catwoman and known to have robbed the place numerous times meant nothing to them. The fact that she was Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend was all they cared about. Just like the ladies at Dior, they were all sure “darling Brucie” would be giving her “something fabulous” to set off her MoMA gown.
“Fabulous” is what they insisted on showing her too: a cat’s-eye and diamond bracelet fashioned like a leopard, a pink sapphire ring, a heavy necklace of amethyst, red tourmaline, ruby, and garnet. These salesmen were just showing them to her, like they wanted her to see something she just had to have… because it was automatically assumed that if she did, it wouldn’t be Catwoman coming to take it in the dark of night, it would be Bruce flashing his credit card at them.
The MoMA was throwing a fucking party, practically to celebrate the end of Catwoman as she had invented herself. Bruce was being so airily casual about the whole thing as if it wasn’t a hands-down win for him, pompous, arrogant, bat-prick that he was. The one person in her life she could turn to for love and support through any other difficult time was… simply not an option for this one. The rest of the world, which had no idea that he was the victorious bat-prick in all this, all assumed he’d be buying her something fabulous from Cartier to wear to the great party commemorating her defeat! And now, while she was treading water as fast as she could trying to hold on to some piece of herself, some idea of what she was supposed to be, along comes Oswald with this, this password.
“…Enabling you to end any confrontation or pursuit without fear of being followed or caught. You utter it, he stops.”
It was monstrous. It was sickening. It was mind-splittingly—outrageously—it was so… they had done it again. Somebody had SCREWED with BRUCE’S MIND! AGAIN! It was so horribly wrong she wanted to actually be a wildcat, to rip them to pieces with her bare claws, rip their throats open with her teeth and tear bloody meat off their bones…
…And at exactly the same moment, a small part of her wanted to use it—just to see if it would work, just to know somewhere deep inside… that she could. One tiny, hidden part of her wanted… to be tempted. Temptation meant choice. It would mean he hadn’t won, not really. She could take the Van Gogh; she could take the twelve-carat ruby; she could take the cat’s-eye/diamond bracelet, the pink sapphire, and the amethyst necklace. She could take it all and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He’d lost. Batman had lost. She could shut him off with a single word:
Nice touch that; it must have come from Blake.
Talia’s wanderings to pass the time while Gr’ori debriefed her father’s minions took her out of Chinatown into a kind of open-air flea market. There were several stalls removed slightly from the others and, going to investigate these, Talia easily saw that they dealt in stolen merchandise. This hodgepodge of stereos, jewelry, MP3 players, watches, silver candlesticks, handbags, and televisions could have no other common attributes to be gathered in the tent of a single merchant.
Talia browsed the goods for sale with a semi-interested eye. Thieves, after all, (when not purple clad cat-witches bent on stealing the hearts of other women’s destined Beloveds) were a staple of her world’s economy. Her father’s operation could not function without the bandits and black markets. It was there, browsing the stolen valuables of Gotham commoners, that Talia began to hear the distressing rumors. The seedy men who staffed this tent spoke of changes in Gotham. The Bat had “lost it,” they said. Criminals escaped him regularly now. Soon someone would snuff him, and Gotham would be as profitable as any other city.
It was troubling. Talia realized at once it was all because of her. She had left with another man, after all. However confused Beloved might have been by the Cat-slut’s witchery, the thought of her in another man’s arms must have snapped him out of it! At last he realized the true calling of his heart, but too late. She was gone—and with no one left to prove himself to, he had suffered this tragic decline.
She raced from the tent and through the flea market to the street, flailing her arms wildly to hail a cab.
With the plethora of groupies hanging around the Iceberg in catsuits since the advent of Catman’s new look, Selina decided a change of costume was in order—just temporarily—to distinguish the true Catwoman from silly little girls that wouldn’t know a bullwhip from a batarang. She had tweaked her look several times over the years, but had always returned to the classic costume that suited both her looks and her style so beautifully. The base garment, unfortunately, had always been a catsuit… except for once. One particularly hot summer, on a whim, she had tried a skirted costume. It was cooler, but she found the loose fabric cumbersome and switched back after a few months.
She never thought about it again until years later, when she went away on a weekend with Batman and returned with Bruce Wayne. Instead of parting where they’d met up at the little executive airstrip near Bristol, he turned to her with that dangerously handsome, unmasked face and said, “Why not come out to the house?” He brought her down to the Batcave, showed her the nerve center, the gymnasium, the chem lab, the trophy room—and there, in amongst his giant penny, his dinosaur, and his two-story playing cards, was her old skirted costume displayed on a wiremesh dressmaker’s dummy.
“What did you call this area?” she had asked casually.
“The trophy room,” he answered—which was incredibly disconcerting still, hearing that deep sexy Bat-gravel from Bruce Wayne’s… incredible… unmasked… handsome… face. Reowrl.
“Trophy,” she said. “As in a prize of some kind, a token or memento of some victory?”
“Something like that,” he said, as she felt a hand fall casually around the curve of her hip. It was mere days since they’d started sleeping together, and he still touched her a great deal. Selina felt a husky purr welling in her throat and used it to drop her voice down to Catwoman’s silkiest tones.
“And what precisely do you consider a ‘victory’ from the eight weeks when I wore that?” she pointed playfully towards the costume. “When you managed to prevent my escaping with the Medici tiara? No, got away with that, didn’t I. Maybe the roman mosaics… nope, I got those too. Oh, I know, it must have been the—” And that’s when he interrupted her with one of the more spectacularly vigorous kisses in the history of men and women rubbing their lips together.
“I got to see your legs,” he graveled finally, his mouth still pressed against hers.
“Well,” she breathed, reeling, “I guess it can stay then.”
It was never mentioned again, but now Selina was decided: that was the costume Catwoman would wear on tonight’s prowl, the costume he’d claimed so arrogantly for his trophy room.
She got as far as the cave, torn between anger at the presumption—his placing her costume among his trophies—and a nostalgic thrill at the memory of that first visit to the Batcave, the heat of those early weeks together, finally tasting the forbidden, impossible—Ungh! She’d run right into him, coming out of the costume vault just as she was heading into the trophy room.
“Hey, Stud,” she purred automatically.
“Need something?” he asked.
“Already in verbal minimalist mode, I see. No, I don’t need anything.”
He grunted and went on his way… to the workstation, she noted. She watched for a moment as he pulled up the At-Large list, then she continued into the trophy room and took down her old costume. She’d expected the anger to spike when she touched it—Catwoman in his trophy room and Selina living in his house, like he had won and she was the spoils of his victory… But in her mind’s eye, she kept seeing him there at the workstation. The workstation meant the logs. The logs were how he realized his mind had been tampered with once before.
She returned to the main chamber of the cave and saw Bruce had pulled up the holographic map of the city and was using the At-Large list to map out the night’s patrol route…
He was in costume, in the cave. He was entirely in Bat mode—he was mapping out his patrol route, for Bast’s sake, it didn’t get much more Batman than that—but the man she saw standing there was Bruce.
She walked up quietly behind him and glanced over the route he was planning.
“How’s it… going… last few nights?” she asked softly.
He didn’t seem to hear. He was marking off a list of potential Scarecrow hideouts.
“Did you say something?” he growled finally.
“I asked how it’s been going.”
“Fine,” he grunted.
“Anything… in the logs, the last few nights?”
Again he didn’t seem to hear. He touched a lightpen to several points on the hologram, and made a note into a hand console.
“Why don’t you leave that for a while,” Selina said carefully.
“What?” he turned, annoyed that he had to give the conversation his full attention.
“Leave it. Take the night off. Come upstairs and make love to me ‘til dawn.”
“You can’t be serious.”
She paused, tilted her head at the angle debutantes are taught, the angle of a flirty high school cheerleader at the carnival asking her boyfriend, the star quarterback, to win her a plush rabbit. He stared at her for a moment, trying to figure out where all this was coming from, and then started to turn back to the hologram.
“Flehmen,” she whispered, tentatively.
stopped mid-turn, his whole body freezing for an instant. Selina’s heart dropped
into her stomach. It was true. The password worked. All of those temptations
that had needled the back of her brain earlier flew away, replaced with simple,
honest, heart-wrenching rage. They’d done it again. They’d messed with his mind. Oh God, Bruce. What will…
He turned back toward her, took a half-step back, tilted his own head a fraction of an inch, and let out a confused breath.
“How did you know?”
Selina burst out laughing, she flung her arms around his neck with unexpected force, and then began babbling, drunk with relief. “Oh I knew it, Iknewit-Iknewit-Iknewit. I knew Ozzy would never get the better of you that way, my Dark Knight, my own…” –kiss– “…wonderful…” –kiss– “Jackass. You’ve been stringing them along for days, haven’t you.” –kiss– “So sexy when you’re sneakybat.”
At which point he was able to grasp the back of her neck firmly and pull her head backward until there was enough space between them to conduct a conversation.
“Ozzy?” he growled. “You found out about this from Cobblepot?”
“Yeah, who else? He’s selling it for $200,000 a pop—or as a bribe to keep me from pulling his lungs out through his nose. But why—”
“Don’t wait up!” he called, releasing her as he turned towards the Batmobile hangar, turning with such speed that Selina nearly spiraled off balance.
“Oh nono,” she called, racing after him. “No. No, no, no. No. Flehmen, goddamn it, just wait ten bloody seconds, getting changed, coming with you, finding out what in the flaming—STOP! WAIT!—is going on?!?”
In all their professional confrontations, while Batman was the better martial artist, the better scientist and the better detective, Catwoman was, in fact, the faster runner. At the conclusion of her disjointed tirade, she had beaten him to the Batmobile and stood between it and him, her one hand on the driver’s door and the other coming to rest on the pouch of his utility belt where he kept the keys.
“No, no. I need to know what’s happening.”
Batman grunted, deciding it was faster to explain than to argue her right to be demanding explanations when he was heading out to close the case.
“This isn’t Penguin’s operation, Selina. It’s Hugo’s. But Hugo Strange doesn’t have the resources to set something like this up. He had to have a backer. I’ve been playing along to find out who. Cobblepot was always a possibility, but I had to be sure. It could have been Ra’s or even Luthor.”
“I see.” Selina whispered. “And now that you know, tonight’s special at the Iceberg will be dead duck.”
“Cobblepot and Strange are going to learn that messing with Batman’s mind is something you simply don’t do, something you don’t even consider attempting, and then I’ll collect the minor players I had to let escape to make them think they had me.”
“I see,” she repeated. “Busy ‘til dawn, then?”
“Probably. I tagged four of them with transmitters. I have a shoe tread on a fifth. While I’m at the Iceberg, I’m sure I can obtain a lead on the final two.”
She stepped wordlessly out of the way, and waited until he got into the car.
“Happy pummeling,” she said then. “Meet me on the MoMA’s roof when you’re through.”
“It will be late, it might be light, it might—”“I don’t care if it’s high noon. Meet me.”
To be continued…