It was Oswald Cobblepot’s third favorite thing in the world, after birds and the dream with the feathered showgirls: anticipated profit.
Anticipating profit was actually better than achieving profit, because once the job was done and you returned to the hideout, you had what you had –kwak– and that was it. Four eagle’s head proofs or four hundred. All that was left was counting it up. But anticipating profit, that was a different bird altogether. There was no limit at this stage. Who’s to say how many of the top tier rogues would want to avail themselves of Matt Hagen’s services? Who could guess how the true aristocrats of crime would put those talents of his to work? And Oswald would dip his beak into each and every deal. Kwak-kwak-kwak, yes, anticipated profit. It was his third-favorite thing in the world.
Cats seldom mope. Selina didn’t know what exactly was going on at Wayne Manor; the situation was mysterious, disturbing, frustrating, and possibly dangerous. But by late afternoon, she had found one taste of cream to savor. It wasn’t much, but it was a tiny point of satisfaction where she could focus her thoughts rather than letting them dwell on… Yes. Well. Not dwelling on that.
The cream: Since embarking on this new life with Bruce, she’d found many ways to keep Catwoman’s true nature alive. From the “exercise” break-ins during her nightly prowls to the exhilarating rooftop and catlair games she sometimes played with Batman…
He rolled right over and went to sleep. He said he was tired, he rolled over, and went to sleep like she wasn’t even there. He… No, it was pointless to keep drifting back to that. The only way to find out what was going on was to get the job done: find a gold bar, get a serial number, and see whatever the hell “Project Walapang” was set up to show her. To get that job done, Catwoman needed to keep a clear head. Stop moping and enjoy the cream.
She’d found many ways to keep Catwoman’s true nature alive. Now and then, like with Aquaman’s Sub Diego job and the whole Zatanna fiasco, it went beyond games and she had the chance to really scratch the old itch. But even on those occasions there was one thing missing. She never realized until now, although it was a vital part of a true cat-crime. The furtive cat. The surreptitious feline. Visiting the museum, jewelry store or gallery during the day in civilian attire, attending a party at the penthouse and chatting up the host, getting a look at the place up close and personal—And all the while seeming so innocent, and all the while seeing so much. Beating the best alarm system was a rush. Cracking an uncrackable safe, picking an unpickable lock. A good chase across the rooftops culminating in a fevered scrap and scratch with Batman, it was all a rush. But this was too. This was a rare and forgotten thrill, making her plans right under their noses, acting so natural and so innocent, not one of them ever guessing the wily cat was in their midst. Me-ow.
So Selina had breakfast. She approved Alfred’s menu (there might come a time to bring Alfred into her confidence, but for now she thought it best to view him as Bruce’s ally, not hers). She wrote a few letters in the morning room before lunch. She went for a walk, she read a magazine, she brushed Whiskers and Nutmeg, and she did her nails. To all outward appearances, it was a deliciously lazy day around the manor. But that night, by the time the Batmobile passed the turnoff to Country Club Lane and sped off once more towards the city, Catwoman had her plan completely worked out.
She started in the dining room. The idea had fluttered in her brain since breakfast: four gold bars hidden in the house, grounds and cave; that’s what he said. That meant there would be at least one in each location, she was sure of it. That’s how his mind worked. And he was catering to Catwoman, consciously and deliberately playing into what he knew of Catwoman with this whole crazy setup “revamping manor security” etc. So… What did he know about Catwoman with respect to Wayne Manor? He knew the one piece she would have taken if she’d hit the house when she was working. She’d told him: she would take the Turner in the dining room. It was a crazy day, Pheromones and Batman appearing out of the past like ghosts in a Shakespeare prologue. It was a crazy day and it was about to get a lot crazier as that first temporal anomaly erupted into a full cosmic crisis. But Bruce was not one to forget a detail like that, no matter how much craziness was whirring around his head. He would remember that she said she’d take the Turner. So she spent lunch and dinner casually working out how.
Wayne Manor was built at a time when the dining room was seen as a stage. It was meant for displaying artwork as emblems of the owner’s wealth and taste. There was room for nine paintings altogether. All but two hung from visible gold chains that rose to the top of the molding and disappeared into the wall. Behind those walls, heavy rods and counterweights supported the enormous weight of the frames. This archaic system was no longer needed, modern materials offered a thousand less conspicuous ways to hang pictures twice this size. But behind the wall, Selina knew from the blueprints, there was nothing archaic. Those antique chains were attached to a much more contemporary type of alarm. They were wired into shock sensors, just like those at the museum, just like the ones she showed Batman she could beat. Anyone moving a painting would, theoretically, disturb the weight on the chains and set off the alarm—despite there being no device whatsoever attached to, or anywhere near, the pictures. It was very clever. What looked like an outdated mechanism in an old house was really camouflage for a brilliant high-tech trap.
The were only two ways around it that Catwoman could see: either prevent the shock sensors from going off (which would be impossible without a month’s preparation, a special magnet array from Kittlemeier, and three henchmen) or else let the alarm “go off” but jam the signal, so it couldn’t “tell” any other parts of the system when it detected a disturbance.
The difficulty was where to place the jammer. It couldn’t go on the Turner, obviously, because the Turner was leaving the wall. It couldn’t go behind the painting or anywhere that she’d have to touch a painting in order to place it. So there was no way she could point it at the sensor straight on, but there was one place where she could come at it from the side. From the blueprints, Selina knew there was a dumbwaiter connecting the dining room with the kitchen below. Once upon a time, this small box elevator was used to bring food quickly and discreetly from the kitchen. It was raised and lowered by pulleys and that meant a sizeable cavity above the box, tall enough for her to crawl into. She could affix her jammer to that inner wall where it would be on a level with the sensors and close enough block any signal, then she could easily get the Turner off the wall without—
After a frozen moment, Catwoman let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding.
She’d been so focused on getting the Turner, she’d half-forgotten her real aim was a gold bar. She’d opened the cabinet concealing the dumbwaiter and lowered the box that acted as an elevator, thinking to crawl up the pulley once it was out of the way… when she saw an object riding on its “roof” as it lowered. It was a long, thin rectangle with a rich dark sheen… She raised it back up to take a closer look. The rectangle was embossed with a Bank of England seal, royal warrant, and the serial number… 00570. Further down it said HK (made in Hong Kong, she guessed absently). And the purity designation was just as she remembered: 999.9. She removed the bar carefully—it wasn’t exactly light—and stored it in the short-term hiding place she’d chosen in her suite. Then she headed for the cave.
A minute later, she was staring at the Walapang screen again, breathing a silent prayer as she typed 00579-HK999.9. She hit return and the screen flashed. A new window opened. The heading indicated a chapter from a forensics textbook on ballistics and blowback. But substituted for the article was a small blurb from ROCKHOUND QUARTERLY:
…found by Michael Haili last fall. The reddish sandstone is marbled with lava from both Mauna Loa, the earth’s largest volcano, and Kilauea, the world’s most active. Because of the predominance of black and red, Haili named the find Harley Quinn Kryptonite. Despite the whimsical name, the sample contains no phosphorescent or florescent properties…
Well that cleared up a lot! Harley Quinn Kryptonite, for Bast’s sake! Thanks, Dark Knight, thank you ever so fucking much! Selina hissed at the screen, then shut it down, remembering that she still didn’t want to risk any more time at Batman’s workstation than she had to.
She headed into the trophy room, her mind racing. Clearly, the clue might mean the obvious: Harley Quinn. But what could the Tassel Twit possibly be involved in that would make Bruce go all Mission Impossible? Kryptonite, on the other hand, meant Superman—and super-hearing and super-powered enemies. That would certainly explain why Bruce wouldn’t say anything openly. He had precautions on top of precautions for that kind of super-eavesdropping, but if something had happened and he no longer trusted those defenses, he wouldn’t take any chances.
Of course, it wouldn’t explain his turning off in bed.
But maybe she was reading too much into that. Maybe he really was tired. It wasn’t impossible; he was human. Especially if he was a human that had a problem with Superman, that would certainly be exhausting.
Again she hissed. The first “clue,” if it could even be called that, raised more questions than it answered, but it did confirm that she had the right idea about “Project Walapang” and the numbers from the gold bars. And that’s what brought her to this display case. She had not chosen the trophy room as a random spot away from the workstation where she could think over the implications of Harley Quinn Kryptonite.
Bruce said the bars would be hidden in the house, grounds, and cave. And he was playing up to Catwoman. This particular case contained an exploding question mark, a freeze ray, several hats tricked out with microelectronics, and a handle of braided leather. It was one of her earliest whips, a true cat-o-nine-tails. The case itself was polycarbon, just like the one at the museum. She told him how it breaks on an entirely different frequency from normal glass. A regular glass-break detector won’t hear a thing if you break a plate of polycarbon, but this wasn’t a “regular” glass-break detector. This discreet 3-inch square protruding from the side of the display case had a tiny recessed silhouette of a bat etched into its surface.
If she broke this “glass,” this device would be set to the right frequency, it would hear the sound and send a signal… where? Checking the base, she could see it wasn’t hardwired to anything. It was another wireless transmitter, which meant she could jam it just like she had with the Turner. She rummaged in her pouch and found a Kittlemeier exclusive the size of a cell phone. She pointed its eye delicately at the case and focused it on the detector’s transmitter, then pressed a button. Keeping the button depressed, she turned slowly until she heard a faint click like that of a Geiger counter. She took a step in that direction and was rewarded with another click—then another—then another—until she reached the wall. She looked down at the device then up at the wall again. It was a wall. A stone wall—in a cave, and no different from any other patch of wall in the cave. He couldn’t have a receiver inside a stone wall, it wasn’t like plaster in the manor, there were no seams or inlets. And it’s not like you could just put up a new cavewall like hanging drywall or scaffolding to cover up a… wait a minute…
You could. He could.
Holding her breath, Selina reached out her hand until the clawtips just came into contact with the edge of the… edge of… she stretched her hand out further, giddy at the discovery. Her fingers and then her entire hand passed right through the “solid rock.”
Only Patient J. Only Patient J could ruin a delightful alleviating mechanism like Barefoot Contessa!
Bartholomew knew there was nothing inherently wrong with a mild obsession connected to a diverting new pastime. It was perfectly normal to reflect on it, now and then, throughout the day, so long as it did not distract one from his or her responsibilities. So when Harleen noticed the shopping list on his desk, Bartholomew saw no harm in telling her about the new show he was watching, or his plans to make Asian grilled salmon, zucchini vichyssoise and pear clafouti that evening.
She said she didn’t like fish and made a face. She said clafouti was a funny word. She said zucchini and vichyssoise were funny words too, and she laughed for five minutes. That was the extent of the interest Harley expressed at the time. But she evidently told Patient J about the conversation, because he devoted his entire session that afternoon to the “pleasures” of watching Ina Garten cook! He called her the zaftig culinariast (which was not a word, Dr. Bartholomew looked it up as soon as Patient J left his office), and revealed that it was only marathon sessions of Barefoot Contessa which enabled him to get through his recent “Ha-Ha-Harley drought, HAHAHAHA!”
The doctor could only stare in mute horror as Patient J giggled and guffawed his way through Ina’s special recipe for 40 clove chicken! “And the smashed potatoes, DOC! Have you tried the smashed potatoes…”
Bartholomew felt ill. But he couldn’t end the session, this was, by Patient J’s standards, something of a breakthrough, opening up this way about a personal endeavor unconnected to killing Batman, killing Robin, killing Nightwing, or killing F. Murray Abraham.
“Just something about the way Miss Garten kneads her rump roasts, Doc. Mmmm. Makes me want to do a little ‘cooking’ of my own! HAHAHAHAhahahahahahahahhahaaa!”
Professionally, it was an astonishing breakthrough. But now, Bartholomew was having a hard time concentrating on the show or his cooking because all he could think about was Patient J and his “marathon sessions” with Ina.
Damn, he was brilliant. Amazingly, fiendishly, wonderfully, diabolically brilliant. Catwoman was equally thrilled with her own cleverness in figuring it out as she was with Bruce’s unbelievable genius. Now she only had to figure what was generating the hologram and block it. There could be dozens of projectors to make the effect seem solid from any angle, but she only had to disrupt the illusion enough to see inside. She reinitialized Kittlemeier’s device, focusing it this time on the hologram itself and giggled anew as it indicated the “glass break detectors” on the different cases that were, in fact, the source of the holographic projection. She quickly taped over the one on the whip case and looked back at the illusion wall. She squinted, just making out a “wrongness” in the look of the rock. It still looked solid, but the colors and shadows were off. She reasoned that the most important projectors would be the most out-of-the-way. The more remote a box was, the less likely anyone could step into its path and block its beams. Knowing that made it easy. She taped over a second box, and then a third. When she looked back at the hologram again, it was no longer solid. The “wall” was still visible but transparent, and “inside” it, Selina could see a small alcove with a safe-door built into the wall. It was just large enough that a person could stand in the alcove in front of the safe, and be completely covered by the hologram. Knowing that much, she removed the tape and slipped into the alcove to get a closer look.
She’d never seen anything like it. The manor and cave were full of various safes and lockboxes; none were that unusual. Upstairs, the typical fire and burglary safes protected the typical family heirlooms, stock certificates, old and current deeds to the land, manor and other holdings. Downstairs, the typical laboratory locks sealed off vials of Scarecrow toxin, Smile-X, and fluid from the Lazarus Pits. There were a few paper filing cabinets that locked exactly the same way all locking file cabinets locked. It was all top quality gear, but nothing really out of the ordinary. This, on the other hand… well she couldn’t say it was “from outer space.” She’d been to the Watchtower and she’d dismantled the Justice League system; she had seen enough truly alien technology to wreck that simile. This wasn’t Martian, Kryptonian or Thanagarian. It was just—Brucian.
First, there was the metal. It didn’t look like your standard steel or titanium safe door—which was hardly a shock. Superman did visit the cave now and then, and Selina always wondered why someone with Bruce’s suspicion and sense of personal privacy was okay with that. This safe would be the answer. If this metal was what she guessed, some kind of titanium-lead alloy, then he did have someplace completely shielded from prying eyes… which underlined the Kryptonite half of the Harley Quinn Kryptonite clue, didn’t it?
The safe had a double lock: a traditional dial and an electronic keypad. Neither posed a significant obstacle. A fairly simple clawtip trick applied to the correct wire caused the keypad to resend the last combination punched in. The traditional dial lock would be trickier. If this titanium-lead alloy could be drilled at all, it would probably require a special drill bit. Kittlemeier would make one out of whatever material she specified, but that meant time she didn’t have. Drilling would also make noise and leave a conspicuous hole in the front of the safe door. None of that seemed prudent… Without that ability to insert a camera and see the tumblers moving as she worked the dial, Catwoman had no choice but to crack the safe the old fashioned way, manipulating the lock to detect the contact points as each wheel moved a notch into position. Many thieves considered this practice “taking the high road.” It was a rare skill, safecracking at its purest. It required no tools or special equipment, only a good ear, an understanding of the mechanism, and patience. Only the last presented a challenge.
Catwoman could turn a—Click—safedial the way Riddler did crosswords, noting the soft tick of the drive pin almost subconsciously and—Click—mentally connecting them to a contact range that represented a notch inside the mechanism and a parking point on the dial… if only Selina would—Click—keep her thoughts focused on the task at hand… 12 and 15, the first number is between 12 and 16, no 15…12 and 15… If only she could keep from replaying that scene from the night before. If only she could stop thinking about—Click—Bruce rolling over and going to sleep, barely even acknowledging—Click—Focus, damnit.
She had to leave the alcove, lean with her back to the wall and take a series of deep breaths… She was too experienced a thief to panic when she heard a noise in the costume vault. She did take off her mask and gloves, to appear more casual in case she was spotted, and then stealthily checked the Batmobile hanger. The primary car was still missing. That meant it was Alfred in the vault. It also meant it wasn’t nearly as late as she thought.
She returned to the alcove and hid inside the hologram. She didn’t touch the dial, she just looked at it and waited. Two locks. Jesus. Hidden inside a hologram in an already hidden cave, and it’s still under two locks—actually three, now that she was looking more closely. There appeared to be a small pressure switch under the lip of the door. She knew those, they were all the rage about ten years ago, you had to press them at the same time you turned the handle for the door to actually open. So technically three locks, INSIDE a hologram INSIDE the fucking Batcave. This was getting a little scary. Could this really be what he wanted her to break into?
He did say look into anything. He said it twice. Anything.
Taking a final breath, she recited the digits she’d already picked off, and went back to work. Ninety minutes later, she depressed that hidden pressure switch and turned the handle. She closed her eyes, reminded the Universe that she never signed on for any of this and all she’d really done was kiss a man in a mask, and finally, she looked inside.
Two boxes rested on top of a gold bar identical to the one in the dumbwaiter. Underneath that was a stack of folders and manila envelopes. The bar was her objective, obviously, but only ten seconds trial-and-error made it perfectly clear that both the gold and one of the boxes were too heavy for her to just slide the bar out without disturbing anything else. So she removed the larger box first, and immediately discovered it was the light one. Mahogany. With a gold W inlaid on the top and a simple latch. It opened to reveal a broken, incomplete string of pearls… a well-worn leather wallet with the initials TW monogrammed in the corner and dark stain of what Selina could only assume was blood… a pair of wedding bands and a remarkably beautiful engagement ring… and a worn, rabbit-eared photograph of Thomas and Martha Wayne with an adorable 8-year-old Bruce at one of those rustic New England marinas.
Selina squelched the guilt, closed the box, and set it gently on the floor. The small box was next, and as soon as she touched it, she realized this was indeed the heavy one. It was lead. After the personal nature of the first box, she was loath to open a second, but lead (particularly when there was a kryptonite clue on the table) wasn’t something she could ignore. She opened it.
Inside was a single object: a man’s ring. Her jewel-thief’s eye appraised the material as high-grade platinum. It surrounded a single square stone, vibrant green, smooth and polished, with a beautiful internal luminescence like uncut emerald. It had to be kryptonite. And in her mind’s ear, she realized Superman had mentioned it once. He said he knew Bruce had gone off to put “that ring” in his belt. At the time, she had no idea what it meant but… well, evidently here it was. She replaced the ring in the box and set it on the floor at her feet beside the first one. Then she carefully maneuvered the gold bar out of the safe, took down the number, and paused, uncertain how to proceed.
Superman had mentioned the ring but Bruce never did. Now he was letting her find it. Harley Quinn Kryptonite and now a Kryptonite ring. She wondered if it was coincidence or if she should go through the rest of the safe. Maybe it was just a place to stash a gold bar and whatever else happened to be in the safe happened to be there—and maybe it wasn’t. Selina looked for a long, wondering moment at the stack of files and envelopes. Then she restored the gold bar rather than taking it, and replaced both boxes on top just as she’d found them. It was that photograph, Bruce with his parents, the pearls and the wallet and the wedding rings. Unless and until she was absolutely sure she was meant to go through that stuff, she wouldn’t pry any further. She had the serial number from the second bar. That was enough to continue with Project Walapang.
It wasn’t exactly logical. She was supposed to find the bar, ergo she was supposed to take the bar—Hiss, screw it. This wasn’t a time for logic; this was a cat-crime. And Selina had always let instinct dictate what left a safe and came home with her, and what stayed right where it was. The serial number would come with her; the gold, for now, would stay where it was.
As before, Selina returned to the workstation and pulled up the Walapang screen. This time, once she typed in the code, she was rewarded with a much longer document inserted into a scholarly article on fingerprints.
… … … … :: Research Log: Batman, Supplemental :: … … … …
While it may or may not resemble the human organ, Clayface certainly does have a “brain” in that there is a central consciousness that controls his body. It does so through electrochemical messages like the firing of human neurons to tense a muscle, hence why he cannot hold his form together when he gets wet. The more conductive the liquid, the faster he loses control of the surface matter and breaks apart.
The key to incapacitating him (and possibly the key to curing his condition REF: Special Foundation Initiative §4, Humanitarian), is therefore to change the conductive and insulating qualities of his mass until his “brain” cannot get those electrical “tense the muscle” commands to his surface tissue. This can likely be accomplished by saturating him with hydrogen, a highly pressurized stream of hydrogen, ideally with a nickel catalyst and at elevated temperatures. The result would break the carbon double bonds in his clay, lowering the temperature at which it turns from liquid to solid. Once a sufficient amount of his body is affected, solidifying at room temperature into insulating matter, he can no longer get the signals from his brain to his surface mass to morph or even move.
The difficulty, of course, is that the process cannot be adequately tested
on isolated samples of clay-matter. Without Hagen’s brain actively
manipulating a sample while it is being treated, the researcher cannot gauge the
proper level of H-saturation for stability/immobility without risking
permanent, catastrophic harm to the subject.
Selina’s heart started pounding as soon as she saw the name Hagen. Hagen a.k.a. Clayface, a.k.a. shapeshifter, a.k.a. this was bad.
“Project Walapang” started to make sense if he had to make sure she wasn’t an imposter. He had certainly hidden the clues in ways only Catwoman’s expertise would think to find them… But she wasn’t the imposter, although she was starting to have a hunch who might be.
It wasn’t Bruce, that was one thing she could be sure of. Clayface could replicate almost anyone visually, he could mimic most voices and mannerisms with an actor’s skill, but the one thing he couldn’t come close to was smell. When Bruce came to bed, she knew that musk of leather, sweat, and cave damp better than she knew her own. It was Bruce; that smell was unique as a fingerprint and no mud-being with no olfactory senses of his own could come close to replicating it. It was Bruce—it was Bruce that came into bed, said he was tired, and rolled over like she wasn’t even there.
She closed Batman’s typically over-thought treatise on how to defeat Clayface, and made a quick trip to the hellmouth closet for a much simpler weapon.
It was a risk. It was getting late enough that Batman might return at any time. But it was a bigger risk to wait. If Selina was right and Bruce came home and caught her, it wouldn’t matter. If she was wrong—
Well, if she was wrong she was going to feel like an absolute moron. And even when Bruce wasn’t acting too suspicious to be trusted, she would prefer he not see her behaving like a total idiot. Nevertheless, Hagen a.k.a. Clayface a.k.a. shapeshifter a.k.a. we could be in some serious, serious trouble and it’s not a time to worry about looking like an idiot.
She stopped in the kitchen and added a cup of kosher salt to the chamber, recalling “the more conductive the liquid, the faster he loses control”—typically convoluted bat-speak for “Use salt water.” She returned to the cave, casually tossed an oilcloth over Workstation 1, then pulled out the SuperSoaker with vicious speed and subjected the bat Walapang to a sustained thirty-second spray.
The huge glacier in the center of the Iceberg Lounge divided in half, revealing one of those golden, carpeted staircases like in the old Hollywood musicals. The band struck up Puttin on the Ritz as Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot descended—in an even more dapper tuxedo than usual—twirling his umbrella instead of a cane while feathered showgirls crossed before him on each step…
In his sleep, Oswald’s lips quivered as his dreamself surveyed the Iceberg crowd and mentally calculated the night’s receipts… the cover charge alone… a World Without Batman cover charge, for an extra $20 per person (with a 4 drink minimum, $6 extra if you want your igloo in a souvenir glass), patrons would enjoy a Gotham City in which no Batman existed—no bats of any kind, no winged creatures at all except birds. Properly feathered birds—like the lovely Raven and Roxy crossing before him on the bottom step and flitting ever so delicately into his arms as he proceeded into the dining room.
“I’m very sorry,” Selina told the drenched and shell-shocked bat as she wrapped it in a towel while its little friend squawked and squeaked and fluttered overhead. “I said I was sorry,” she told it. The bat seemed dazed more than hurt. His ear was sort of bent back the wrong way and he’d probably breathed in more salt water than he’d have liked. But he had worked his one wing out of the towel already, that was a good sign. Selina rewrapped him and did a quick feel along his shoulders the way she would check a cat for injuries. He was holding his legs and back strangely, but that straightened out once he was dried off and warmed up.
“Now look, Stud,” she told him with a hint of her old rooftop manner, “I know I’m not exactly in a position to ask a favor, but it’s going to look really suspicious if you don’t go back to your perch. So could we please, just this once, overlook the fact that Kitty had her fingers in the Tiffany’s vault—or in this case, thought you were a shape shifting intruder and nearly drowned you with eighty-plus ounces of sustained saltwater dousing?”
The bat extracted itself from the towel and screeched spitefully at her hand before flapping back to its companion on the perch.
“Good enough,” Selina sighed.
She started cleaning up the workstation, and glanced back at the trophy room. If there was any question of an imposter among them, maybe she should go through the safe after—too late. She heard the first growl of the Batmobile engine approaching the cave entrance. Within a second, it grew to a roar—usually a welcome roar, but not tonight. She hurriedly grabbed the remains of cotton swabs, oil cloth and towels, and sprinted toward the stairs just as the walls began to rumble from the car entering the hangar.
To be continued…