Nothing about Batman and Catwoman was “normal.” They weren’t normal as criminal and crimefighter, they weren’t normal as lovers, and if there was a norm for criminals and crimefighters who then became lovers but sometime later resumed playful games harkening back to their adversarial relationship, they were about to shatter that one as well.
That was Batman’s thought as he clenched his gloved knuckles into a fist and rapped them in a sharp bell-ringing motion against the door of the new Cat Lair. After a minute passed with no answer, he shot a “stay put” warning towards the waiting car and moved to the window, repeating the procedure. This time, he was rewarded with a high-pitched metallic whine as a camera turned overhead. He looked up, glared into it, and waited.
After another minute, Catwoman appeared on the other side of the window, pressing her body against the glass.
“Well this is new,” she mouthed distinctly, “You knocked.”
He shook his head and pointed towards the door.
“No games. Open up. Now,” he mouthed back.
She stuck out her tongue.
“Make me,” she teased.
“No, I mean ‘No games.’ Open up now.”
He pointed again, and Catwoman shifted behind the glass, trying to see in the direction he was pointing. Unable to glean much from her vantage point, she gave a final wink and withdrew from the window.
Batman returned to the front door and signaled the waiting car. The door opened and Greg Brady emerged, straining to pull Ubu’s enormous bulk from the back seat. Batman was about to go help when an audible tone indicated the lair’s perimeter defenses were disengaged and the door opened. He braced himself for an onslaught of amused felinity.
“Hey, Handsome, long time no grunt—what in the HELL!” she blurted, eyes wide as she saw Greg Brady lumbering towards her as he tried to maneuver Ubu’s considerable deadweight through the door. “Um…” She pointed and swallowed. “Where will I put it, and how much does it eat?”
“Get him inside,” Batman ordered, turning from Catwoman to Brady and back to Catwoman, “We need a safe house,” he explained pushing her back inside the door. “Then get that car moved around back,” he told Brady. “And this is literally the last place anyone from DEMON will look,” he told Catwoman.
Ra’s returned alone to the Gotham Imperial Hotel, unable to share Jervis Tetch’s eager anticipation of “roid rage penguins.” They were all insane, of course; Ra’s knew that before setting foot in Gotham City, but nonetheless, to actually experience the madness first hand was a shock. And to face one of the massacres they considered excitement, to face it without a single guard or attendant, it was not to be borne. If Ra’s al Ghul was to meet his end in the Detective’s city, it would be on the point of his own Dragon Blade, even if it was that accursed Feline who drove it through his bowels, but it would NOT be at the hands of a “roid rage penguin” while his own Ubu stood by, enthralled by a plant-woman!
Not knowing how to retrieve his bodyguard from the ropes of vinery draped over him, Ra’s had returned to the hotel and sat once again on the bed. It had been turned down in his absence, with even more rose petals strewn through the sheets and a chocolate swan resting on the pillow.
Greg Brady had tried to usurp his former liege lord, the Penguin. He tried to take over the Iceberg’s vast network of criminal operations for himself. There was no end to the man’s villainy and ambition—which Ra’s would normally applaud in a tenant al ghul, but now… Greg Brady controlled Ra’s men in Gotham City and had done so for many months. The men he had led were now interspersed throughout DEMON, in a dozen posts in the Americas and throughout the world. There was no telling who was still loyal and who, if allowed to get close enough, would plunge their dagger into Ra’s al Ghul’s heart and hail Greg Brady the new Demon’s Head!
Ra’s bit the head off the chocolate swan as a course of action suggested itself… Yes, it was a desperate move, but these were desperate times. Separated as he was from the sole minion of whom he could be absolutely certain… Yes, yes it might work. It would work. He had been in dire circumstances before, and he would triumph over this one. If only he could locate Talia.
Catwoman deftly moved an ice bucket out of the way so Brady and Batman could maneuver Ubu’s unconscious bulk onto her sofa without knocking it over. She had equipped this particular catlair with a large, wide sofa, but not with this end in mind. Noting the three-hundred pounds of snoring DEMON bodyguard now laid out on it (and, in fact, spilling over the one side), she considered burning it—if not the entire lair—when this miserable episode was over.
“Think that’s as stable as he’s gonna get,” Greg said finally, nodding with satisfaction at a job well done. Then he turned to Catwoman, like a henchman who had done this a few dozen times before. “What kinda chains you got around here?”
“Uuum,” Catwoman winced, “Excuse me?”
“Chains, wrist restraints, ankle cuffs, whatcha got?”
Catwoman made a face and shot Batman a look.
“Why are you guys here again?” she asked pointedly.
“How about plain rope?” Brady suggested.
“I’ll explain,” Batman growled. “Brady, move the car around back.”
Greg Brady offered a cheery salute, like a man used to gamely taking orders whether they made sense to him or not. “Sure thing, Dude,” he chirped. “An’ I’ll look if there’s jumper cables in the trunk. Can always hog tie ’em with jumper cable. I’m used to improvising, y’know, from the Ha-Hacienda. Situations like this, Mr. Joker had some ‘unrealistic expectations’ about Silly Putty.”
As soon as Greg was gone, Batman pulled Catwoman into the next room.
“Ubu is six different kinds of unconscious right now,” he said softly. “But I still don’t want anybody talking in front of him. If he hears anything compromising, even subconsciously—”
Catwoman looked intrigued.
“What can he hear that Ra’s doesn’t already know?” she asked, a quietly excited purr.
Batman noted her excitement and glared, for the hundredth time, at her unfathomable ideas of “fun.”
“Brady’s cover is blown,” he said in a forceful whisper. “At least, it’s… likely that it’s blown. I need to get him out of Gotham, away from Demon, and into a new identity. He doesn’t want to go. My guess is what he really means is that he doesn’t want to go without her. But before we could even discuss it—”
“Read: settle it with your fists,” Catwoman observed dryly.
“Before we could even discuss it,” Batman repeated, “he got this call to pick up Ubu at the Iceberg.”
“Don’t ask. Sounds like Ra’s and Ubu both showed up there tonight and… You can imagine the rest.”
Catwoman chuckled wickedly.
“I can… Ra’s and Ubu at the Iceberg… Chum in shark-infested waters. Sorry I missed it.”
“Selina, please, Brady could be back at any minute… We didn’t dare take him back to the Chinatown base. This was the first place that came to mind.”
“Yeah, um, about that… I guess I’m flattered, but, eh, to satisfy a cat’s curiosity, how did you…”
“You’ve had this place for at least three years,” Batman rattled off like he was reading a resume. “But you never ‘moved in.’ Some point you decided you’d never use it and rented it out to Victor Frieze. He had six cold suits over there and a dry ice machine in that corner. All of a sudden, the sign out front changes and it’s a Cats Cosmetics warehouse. And the next week, you announce you’ve got a new lair. C’mon, Kitten, not even a challenge.”
“Well, that aside,” Catwoman purred finally. “The problem is, I do not have chains, ankle cuffs and whatever-the-hell-else he reeled off just now. Not really what this place was set up for. I’ve got a bottle of Tattinger ready to chill, a DVD player, and a box of those cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery.”
Batman’s lip twitched despite his best effort to restrain it.
“I’ll make it up to you,” he whispered.
“Yes, you will,” she said with a gleam. “I promise you that.”
Harvey Dent returned to the Flick Theatre, the one remnant of Two-Face he had kept in his life. He liked the old building. He’d liked it so much, with those enormous comedy-tragedy masks hanging off the façade like gargoyles, that he’d bought the building outright instead of just moving in like any old hideout meant to be used once and then abandoned as soon as he’d lured Batman into a deathtrap.
Batman… That was something of a dilemma. There was a time when they were allies in the war on crime. If this happened back then, Harvey would have marched right into Police HQ, gone to the roof, lit the Bat-Signal, and made Batman aware of the situation without thinking twice.
But that was a long time ago, and in the years since, Batman became an enemy—and even more to the point, Selina became a friend. Even if she was with Bruce now, she certainly wouldn’t like Harv’s pulling Batman into a situation where he’d have to deal with—
“I see you have returned, my knight in shining armor.”
—Talia al Ghul.
Catwoman saw no reason to stay in a lair with Joker’s old henchman Giggles, nursing/guarding a shell-shocked Ubu.
A shell-shocked, creeper-vined Ubu with a maple leaf tucked in his loin cloth. As if the day could get any more ludicrous after the barbecue. Ubu, personal assistant/man-bitch to the Hairdo and scourge of all things Western, enslaved by Pammy at the Iceberg. Just like a two-bit henchman who rubbed her the wrong way after her third cosmopolitan. That’s just good dinner theater. And she’d missed it. She’d have to remember to ask the Iceberg crowd how it all went down, but for now, she headed home.
She parked her Jaguar, as always, in the old carriage house. She disliked driving home after a prowl, it didn’t seem natural. By parking in the carriage house, she could make her way across two acres of Wayne property on foot, maneuvering expertly through the grounds security and even taking the elms up to the manor roof to lower herself down to the bedroom window, just like getting home when she lived in the city. She was just deciding to take the spruce tree up instead, for a little change of pace, when she saw a blue flash where no flash should be.
She uncoiled her whip and went to investigate.
“I told you,” Harvey said sternly, “Not to even joke with me in those terms. I didn’t rescue you, I don’t even like you much.”
“You let me share this vast palace with you,” Talia answered, gesturing around the old movie house Two-Face one used as a hideout. “Without charging me ‘rent.’ Those women from the diner were prepared to take a $6000 gold and diamond Piaget to allow me to share their filthy, roach-infested hovel and eat the greasy refuse of a peasant trough.”
“One roach is not an infestation, Talia, although I’ll admit that leftover ‘sticky’ you brought from the diner was fairly disgusting.”
“I would prefer that you call me Tee… Harvey.”
“I know; that’s why I’ll be calling you Talia. And that’s why you’re not going to start calling me Harvey. I’ve heard all the stories about you, lady. You’re fucked up. You get ideas about men. I told you going in if there was any of that with me…”
“Yes, I know. You will obtain a restraining order against me, to be enforced by the Feline slut’s pet tiger if necessary.”
“Eah-eah-eah,” he chided, waving a finger, “And what else did I say?”
Talia sighed, then answered through clenched teeth.
“That if I ever speak of Selina Kyle disrespectfully in your hearing, you will wash my mouth out with soap and send me to bed without supper.”
“Why, Mr. Dent, since you so obviously share the Feline’s low opinion of me, did you take me in at all?”
It was a question Talia had asked twelve times since they met, and she had yet to receive a real answer.
Even with the living arrangement in Mia’s flat and eating gratis at that awful diner, Talia knew she needed income to survive. She had remembered a little sign in the rear of a department store she’d frequented in Metropolis. It advertised a “finishing school” for teenage girls each Saturday morning, for five hours, lunch provided. So Talia brought this idea to the customer service desk at Bergdorf’s, the best department store in Gotham, offering to edify the marriageable daughters of their customers with respect to table manners and ladylike deportment. They were not interested. She tried Barneys next and they too were not interested. She tried Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Fortunoff’s and Saks. Finally, at Vendome, they said yes. Talia had a hard time conducting herself “with ladylike deportment” at that moment, so great was her shock: They said yes! She had persevered! She was victorious! She had a job!!! Maybe not much of a job, but still…
It was then that Harvey Dent came up to her. He’d been watching, he said, since Barney’s; that’s where he first saw her. He’d just bought this dress shirt—which he showed her as if to verify his story—when he happened to overhear her pitch. He was curious, he said, so he’d followed her. He congratulated her on her persistence, and then looked ready to leave. Desperate to prolong the encounter, Talia remembered there was a little tearoom inside the store. She suggested that he join her for a little celebration. He looked uncomfortable. His fingers twitched as if he was fidgeting with something that wasn’t there. Then, with a trapped expression, he agreed.
“Oh. My. God,” Catwoman said aloud on discovering the mystery blue flash was the K-metal lasers pinning an intruder on the footpath from the tennis court.
The trees on the manor grounds were not high enough for the kind of dramatic drop-down entrances one could make in the city, so she opted to stroll up, casually, and flick off the laser control with an expert tap of her clawtip. Then she turned her full attention on the intruder.
“Ra’s, you’re having what we in Gotham call a ‘Really Bad Day,’” she said sweetly.
The quaint tearoom in the corner of the posh Vendome department store was more refined than anything Talia had experienced in months. It was far better appointed than that horrid diner where she had been taking her meals since parting with Greg Brady, not to mention the coarse roadhouses she’d been subjected to when they were together. Talia had reveled in that half hour’s taste of her old life—until the bill came and she realized, to her horror, that she had asked Harvey Dent to be her guest but had no way at all to pay for it. Her cheeks burned as she stammered an explanation: the watch, the diner, her finances, her father—going so far as to show Harvey the credit card that she dared not use.
At that moment, Harvey Dent proved himself to be something Talia had not encountered in the modern world: he was a gentleman. He picked up the check as if it had been his intention all along. And rather than leaving it at that, he went on to address several details from her rambling explanation, details Talia was surprised he’d notice or care about. Then, with the focus and organization of a brilliant lawyer who had also been a criminal mastermind, Harvey laid out a plan to put her life in order.
They started by redeeming her watch from Mia and moving Talia into the Flick Theatre. Harvey didn’t want her watch in exchange for room and board; he wanted her to do what she’d done at the department stores: to find some skill or resource she actually possessed on her own and use it to make herself useful and valuable.
Under all her bluster and pretense, Talia didn’t really think she had any skills or resources. She’d been a failure at everything she’d ever attempted, from the League of Assassins to LexCorp, from seducing Bruce Wayne to making a life with Greg Brady… Of all the failures and disappointments, it was that last one that haunted her. She’d looked on Greg as nothing more than a protector, a practical expediency after the disaster with LexCorp left her with nowhere else to go. It was only after Greg had left—after she so senselessly drove him away with her stupid, futile pursuit of Bruce Wayne—that she realized she’d been truly happy with him as she’d never been chasing after—
“Good god, the Water Works,” Harvey Dent grumbled. “You get weepier than any woman I’ve ever met. And all because a guy won’t let you call his best friend a vermin slut.”
Talia drew herself up proudly, a move Harvey recognized from Ra’s performance earlier in the day. He shook his head sadly as she announced—with less hauteur than Ra’s, at least—that she had thought of a quality she possessed that could be of use to him, to pay for her room and board.
“Astonish me,” Harvey said with a haunting ring of Two-Face’s cruel sarcasm. “What did you come up with?”
“I’m old,” Talia answered simply. “This building wasn’t a movie house originally. It was a theatre for the lower sorts, Vaudeville, and before that… a Spanish theatre, I expect. I remember them. The single women would have sat up there, that whole section that’s closed off now as the projection booth, those would be the private boxes, and that refreshment area below would have been an open courtyard.”
Harvey smiled at this.
“Go on,” he said. “Interesting, but so far doesn’t do me any good unless I’m working on a history dissertation at Hudson U.”
“Don’t you see,” she sang out, becoming wildly enthusiastic, “You could restore it! I could help you! We could make it all exactly as it was. In Metropolis, there was always some ‘historic riverfront’ restoration being proposed to revitalize some neighborhood or other, rebuilding an old location and putting in shops and restaurants.”
Harvey’s smile broadened, he looked truly pleased. But he shook his head no.
“I haven’t got that kind of money,” he said happily. “I can live indefinitely on the income from Two-Face’s plunder, but I can’t go investing in a pipedream like that.”
“We can raise the money,” Talia said quickly. “Loans, bonds, charity events, there are a thousand ways to raise capital, why at LexCorp—”
“Not that black card in your purse?” Harvey asked, amused. “You can buy a plane with that if you wanted, a city block, or a couple million in contractor’s services and supplies.”
“I, I can’t,” Talia stammered.
“I know you can’t,” Harvey laughed. “You didn’t even suggest it.”
Talia looked bewildered.
“Mr. Dent, I have already explained that if I were to charge so much as a dollar to that credit card, my father will—”
“Will know at once where you are and that you need him. I know. Talia, I know. You asked why you’re here, why I agreed to help you even though, as you guessed, I can’t stand you. Well, that’s why. Because you’ve got that card in your purse that’ll solve all your problems—but you can’t use it, ‘cause it sucks you right back into your old life. So you moved on—but you’ve got it with you. You didn’t cut it up.”
He reached in his pocket and took out a silver dollar, holding it up like a talisman.
“This is mine.”
Talia didn’t seem to understand. She looked put out.
“You have no interest in my helping you restore this building then? You meant merely to test me?”
“I have absolutely no interest,” Harvey confirmed, “but now that we’ve found something you can do, I’m sure there’s a Victorian pub or a colonial inn out there looking for a consultant. I’ll ask around the Harvard Club and find you something—in Aspen or Vancouver or maybe Melbourne. Far, far from Gotham is the point. You need to get your tail out of here, and fast.”
“Absolutely not,” Talia declared. “What new life I make for myself shall be here in Gotham or not at all.”
“Talia, no. I didn’t know how to break this to you, so I’m just going to spit it out: Your father is in Gotham. I saw him this afternoon. He must be looking for you. You’ve got to leave.”
Talia’s knees felt weak, and she steadied herself against the wall before lowering herself feebly into a chair.
“I cannot,” she said helplessly. “I cannot leave Gotham, Mr. Dent. I simply can’t.”
Jonathan Crane clung fitfully to the chandelier above the Iceberg dining room.
“Oswald, we can work this out,” he pleaded miserably. “It was a simple misunderstanding.”
Oswald Cobblepot said nothing, but watched coldly as four hatted emperor penguins circled under the chandelier like fuzzy waddling sharks.
“It was a simple misunderstanding!” Crane repeated desperately.
It was a movie, Oswald sniffed. March of the Penguins. A Zoom henchwench came all the way from Keystone City to have him autograph a poster for it. March of the Penguins, and he hadn’t heard a thing about it. March of the Penguins, and he’d worked himself into a state because of all the Ozzy-Wozzying he was suddenly the focus of. He would be one credulous bird if he didn’t recognize that as a bit of Scarecrow handiwork.
“This isn’t my fault!” Crane wailed feebly.
Oswald waddled regally out to the main floor, stood directly under Jonathan Crane, and prodded him higher into the chandelier with the tip of his umbrella.
“Three booths shattered by a freeze ray,” Oswald said testily, “Nine Ghost Dragons claiming whiplash injuries from sliding into each other on the resulting ice slick and demanding their bar tabs be zeroed in remuneration. We shall have to close for at least two nights to get all the foliage removed from the ventilation ducts where they fled. And I personally, taking refuge behind the bar from a fear-crazed Ubu on the one side and a fear-crazed penguin on the other, stubbed my toe. Your bill comes to $58,043. I leave you now, my dear Jonathan, to find an all-night moviehouse screening this March of the Penguins. I expect to receive payment in full by last call tomorrow evening.”
Catwoman ushered Ra’s al Ghul through the French doors into the Wayne Manor dining room—only to be met by Alfred Pennyworth sternly pointing one of Ra’s own Dragon Blades squarely at his chest.
“Very pleased to see you back, miss,” Alfred said calmly, nudging Ra’s at swordpoint into the nearest chair. “The alarm system alerted me, of course, when the perimeter was breached. I thought it best to stand watch in case the individual made it to the house.” He sniffed disgustedly in Ra’s direction. “As you are more than capable of seeing to the present situation, shall I consider myself at liberty to inform the master of this new development.”
“Sure,” Selina nodded, taking the sword from Alfred and pointing it, playfully, towards Ra’s nose. “Tell him Kitty found a way to amuse herself after all.”
Alfred gave a soft cough and left. A seething gurgle rumbled deep in Ra’s al Ghul’s throat, but he said nothing.
“You’re awfully quiet, Ra’s,” Selina observed. “Cat got your tongue?”
“If you seek to bait me, young woman, with such infantile banter, I warn you I am long past the state in which your ‘catacisms’ might faze me.”
“Yes, that’s right, I heard. You lost your Iceberg cherry. Congratulations, Ra’s, today you are a Rogue.”
Ra’s drew himself up, and regarded the far wall with a blank expression.
“I shall wait for the Detective’s return. I shall not demean myself further by speaking with you, Woman.”
Catwoman shrugged, pulled up a chair opposite him and sat prettily, crossing her legs and pointing the sword, yet again, at Ra’s chest. At the conclusion of this maneuver, she affixed him with a naughty grin.
“So we wait,” she said happily.
One minute and thirty seconds of Catwoman’s naughty grin was as much as Ra’s al Ghul could endure in silence. He coughed, as if he had to physically expel some kernel of dignity from his body before he could proceed.
“Madam,” he began as if dictating a letter, “It is unlikely that a woman such as yourself can begin to fathom… That is to say, circumstances sometimes arise between men of consequence… Oh, how can I possibly put this that your feeble intellect can understand—”
“You’re screwed,” Selina said simply. “Ra’s, I could honestly give a damn if you tell me why you’re here or not, but that’s the story. Coming to the house, going to the Iceberg, getting nailed by a K-metal laser outside, that’s all just detail. Your ass was toast the minute you took it into your head to come to Gotham.”
“You may speak truth, Feline. But I was lured here, possibly to my doom, by an unscrupulous assassin! And therein lies my business with the Detective. I simply must locate my daughter if I am to survive these present circumstances, and as I am unable to locate her through the usual means, I—”
The tip of the Dragon Blade bobbled merrily as Catwoman laughed.
“You’re fucking kidding me, right? Not the kidnapping shit again. Ra’s, for God’s sake, learn a new tune.”
Ra’s closed his eyes, summoning patience.
“Catwoman, I assure you, I am more than aware that my circumstances bare a… an indisputable similarity to that ruse by which I habitually appraise the abilities of potential… that is to say, I am not unaware that the credibility of my claim is not enhanced by—”
“Stop! Ra’s, you were drinking with Jervis tonight, weren’t you? It’s contagious. Trust me on this, there’s no way out of that sentence.”
“You really are looking for Talia?”
He nodded again.
“You figure she’s somehow going to help you against this ‘unscrupulous assassin’ you’ve got chomping at your heels?”
“Same way you thought she’d ‘help’ you with Bruce?” Selina said, twirling the tip of the blade. “How’s that little plan working out for you, Demon Head?”
Ra’s trembled with anger. Much as his regal pride burned to strike down this insolent female, he recalled his earlier thought: If he was meant to die in the Detective’s City, it would be on the point of his own Dragon Blade, even if it was that accursed Feline that drove it through his bowels. Ra’s al Ghul was no coward, but he was superstitious. If that earlier thought was prophetic, it was sent as a warning from the Fates. He would not tempt their good will. So he choked down his fury and assumed a patronizing smile.
“Women see these things so simply,” he said, standing carefully and keeping a wary eye on the Dragon Blade as Catwoman stood as well. “Nevertheless, if you will kindly inform the Detective on his return that I require his assistance in locating my daughter, and that it shall certainly be in his interests to aid me, as this treacherous individual I battle is of his city. Surely the danger is as great to all of you as it is to myself, should Greg Brady come to power and—”
“Greg Brady?” Selina repeated, her face betraying no hint of emotion.
“It is by that name he is known among your people, yes.”
Selina ran her tongue thoughtfully against the back edge of her teeth, while her features remained calm and impassive.
“I will certainly give him the message,” she said at last.
To be concluded…