Ted Layne, Frank Endicott, James Grimes, John Forbes…
Selina recognized the names from a dozen Wayne functions. They were all major contributors to the Foundation, some were board members and she had the impression that others had been in the past. She searched her memory for the introductions Bruce made at those first parties they attended together. She hadn’t paid that much attention since she already knew most of them, both officially from similar parties she’d attended on her own, and unofficially as “the north penthouse at the Excelsior Towers with the forged Vermeer and family ‘jewels’ that were all CZ and paste.” Bruce’s introductions served only to supply Wayne-specific details on these men: at that time, Frank Endicott was on the board of both Wayne Enterprises and the Foundation, Ted Layne… damnit, she just couldn’t remember. She remembered it was a Wayne Foundation “League of Nations” Charity Event where she met him. She remembered that Gladys Ashton-Larraby took an instant dislike to Clark Kent of the Daily Planet. She remembered that bothering Bruce, although it meant nothing to Selina at the time. She remembered being far more focused on Randolph Larraby, quite drunk and quite fixated on her breasts. She remembered nothing of Ted Layne other than that he was there. John Grimes was a blur as well, although Mrs. Grimes was wearing a spectacular pair of Harry Winstons and the truism “the more unfaithful the husband, the more spectacular the jewel collection” was uttered more than once in the ladies room.
Grimes, Layne, Endicott… She just couldn’t remember, which meant it was time to reevaluate Alfred as a confidant. In favor: he was Alfred. He knew everything about everybody and he was more than discreet. Against: Bruce was being awfully careful about something or someone and she still didn’t know who, what, or why. In favor: It was only a list of names; it’s not like she’d be tipping anything about gold bars, Harley Quinn, Kryptonite, Clayface, or Bruce’s odd behavior. In favor: She wasn’t very good at this. She’d said it before and she’d say it again: detective work wasn’t her kink. So far, she’d found 3 bars out of 4, she didn’t know a damn thing more than when she started, and she damn near drowned poor Walapang. It would be good to talk to someone, even if she couldn’t tell him much. So she copied down the names and went upstairs to find Alfred.
Jean Paul Valley never made a Bat pickup before. Two stops. The first was at the Wayne Tech campus, and he felt entirely in his element. Sure, he pretended to be a simple delivery man, but he could look around the room, the communal arrangement of the open cubicles, and place every person he saw: team leader, coder, coder, coder, hardware geek, GIRL! (must be a graphic artist working on the interface) and next to her, last cubicle on the end… coder.
He picked up the microchips as if he had no idea what they were, then stole a last look at the coder whose cubicle was next to the artist’s. The huge Star Wars poster tacked to the wall of the cube is what first drew his attention, but he found himself focusing on the smaller details that denoted the occupant’s profession: the pyramid of Mountain Dew cans, the bird’s nest of peripheral devices sitting on the corner of his desk, the matched Superman/Batman action figures sitting atop his monitor. That could have been him if things had worked out differently. No Azrael. No lineage. No duty to anything higher than holding down a job, paying his rent, and working up the guts to talk to that artist a couple times a week. He wouldn’t know who Bruce Wayne was other than a name on his paycheck or a picture in the annual report. He wouldn’t know Batman other than as a small plastic action figure on his monitor. He sure wouldn’t be making a supply run out to Wayne Manor. He’d be sitting with those guys eating stale Indian takeout, bluffing the guys on the browser team about who was farther behind and whose delays would push back the launch date, maybe even betting a keg on the outcome like he and Scott did with a rival dorm at MIT…
What might have been. Shit.
Selina found Alfred reading in his room. He sprung up as always, asking if he could get her something, while she refused and begged him not to get up. They sat and, after a momentary awkwardness, she pushed forward a slip of paper and asked if he recognized the names. He read them over, then leaned forward with his elbow on the table, his thumb under his chin and his index finger placed thoughtfully to his lips. Selina watched and waited, fascinated. Alfred consulting his mental rolodex was unlike anything she’d ever seen. She’d seen Bruce’s wheels turn, both in the cowl and out, Eddie’s, Harvey’s, Oswald’s. But this was something new.
“Eight… no, ten years ago. Yes, ten years,” Alfred said at last. “These men all served on the board of the Wayne Foundation, miss. As you know, directors serve three-year terms, staggered, so there is both change and continuity each year. That particular board sat ten years ago. The theme of the winter fundraiser that year was Monte Carlo night, and since Mr. Grimes headed the fundraising subcommittee, the event was held at one of his hotels rather than Robinson Plaza. That was also the year the Park Row Clinic received a Conway-Novick endowment, quite prestigious, in recognition of Dr. Thompkins’ excellent work.”
Alfred paused, his face darkening slightly. Had it been Bruce, Selina would have known that he was either cataloguing his memories to recall some additional detail or else deciding whether or not to reveal a certain piece of delicate information; but while she had become quite adept at interpreting every expression and facial mannerism on Batman’s face, the usually stoic butler was actually a tougher nut to crack.
“Anything else?” she prompted.
“Yes,” Alfred finally replied, “I believe this was… eh, well, it was the year the board of the Foundation experienced a rather unpleasant episode with Poison Ivy, miss.”
“Ivy,” Selina repeated darkly.
“Yes, miss,” Alfred said with emphasis.
“Tell me everything,” she ordered.
“W-ell,” Alfred began hesitantly, noting the emergence of a Catwoman voice he seldom heard. “I dare say Master Bruce may have been somewhat selective in the details he made known to me.”
“I see the Pennyworth tact mechanism has been engaged,” Selina noted aloud. “Alfred, please, it’s important. Tell me everything that happened, and don’t spare me the gory details.”
“Well, miss, I gather that Miss Isley approached each gentleman individually and incognito. In Master Bruce’s case, he was lunching at the Empire Club. A strange woman came up and kissed him, and then apologized, saying she mistook him for someone she knew… presumably someone with whom she was on kissing terms, which I must say, in my day was not considered… that is to say, in a public restaurant, miss.”
“Typically Ivy,” Selina muttered. “Go on.”
“That night,” Alfred went on, his growing discomfort becoming apparent, “the gentlemen were compelled to gather at some remote location, and…”
He paused and pursed his lips, clearly distressed by the words to come next and searching for an accurate but non-inflammatory way to say it. Selina realized that telling Alfred to cast tact aside was like asking Batman to look the other way while she left with someone else’s diamonds. It violated his core programming and he simply wouldn’t do it.
“They went to this remote location,” Selina prompted gently.
“Yes, miss, an empty theatre, I believe. And… And their condition in so far as being responsive to the lady was… intensified.”
There. He got it out. And Selina was relieved, as much as she was absurdly and retroactively pissed at Poison Ivy.
“Go on,” she repeated, and again Alfred nodded.
“The gentlemen were commanded to sign over their assets to Poison Ivy’s control, and to keep the incident a secret. Master Bruce later reported that he tried several times to inform Commissioner Gordon, myself, and financial officers from the Foundation about what had transpired, but no matter what means he attempted, he was always prevented from doing so.”
“But he seemed okay apart from that?” Selina asked thoughtfully.
“Yes, miss, I would imagine it was analogous to a post-hypnotic suggestion. Apart from not being able to speak about the incident, directly or indirectly, Master Bruce was able to function at home, at Wayne Enterprises, and as Batman, just as always. That was the saving grace of the situation, if I might so phrase it, miss. In the course of ‘affecting’ Bruce Wayne, Poison Ivy had also affected Batman, hence Batman was aware of the larceny being attempted. He worked on the case alone and in secret until he was able to uncover an accomplice and made that culprit confess before the police. Once Ivy’s influence over the gentlemen was known, the coerced documents were invalidated and the matter was very quickly resolved.”
Selina said nothing, but her brow was knit as she considered the ramifications of that type of greening. She had Harley Quinn and Clayface clues, Harley and Clayface “had a thing.” And now a Poison Ivy clue, a Poison Ivy clue of a very particular kind, one that referenced a very particular kind of greening. If Ivy somehow got to Bruce…
But damnit, she tried that only a year ago. Bruce figured out she’d be coming after him and he was ready for her. So she couldn’t have gotten to him, could she?
But if she had, if she had somehow greened either Bruce Wayne or Batman, then his odd behavior began to look very different. No fear of super-eavesdropping or shapeshifting imposters explained why he would come back from patrol and walk right past her sleeping in the Batcave, in a chair he knew was miserably uncomfortable, instead of waking her and bringing her up to bed. But if Ivy had got to him, then that was the answer. He just wouldn’t care.
Alfred was curious, both about Selina’s questions and her distant expression as she pondered the answers. But he had enough experience with Master Bruce talking over cases that he’d developed a keen sense for when to probe and when to let his companion think. This looked like a time to stand by attentively and let Miss Selina think. When she was ready to resume…
“The garden,” she murmured absently.
The day she found him at the window in the drawing room, maybe he wasn’t looking at ‘his city’ across the river, maybe he was looking at something closer, something right outside that window. Maybe he was looking at the garden. Pining for ‘his goddess,’ she thought miserably.
He even asked to meet in the garden to give Catwoman the security job. She replayed the scene in her mind, every detail now seeming like a razor glinting with new significance. That pointed defining of roles when he gave her the job: Bruce Wayne wanted to meet with Catwoman. Was that some loophole he’d found in Ivy’s commands, following the letter of her order but sneaking a message out past the spirit of it? Maybe Batman couldn’t act but Bruce Wayne could? Then there was the way he’d looked at her so searchingly before saying what he wanted, the way he’d seemed about to speak and then turned away… the way he’d looked around the garden and then spoke so carefully, “A complete analysis and overhaul of manor security,” as if testing out each word before speaking it.
He was testing out each word. He was trying to send a message indirectly and didn’t know if he could do it. Holy god, he was… Project Walapang was an SOS. He was in trouble, and he was calling for help.
Selina looked up at Alfred and wondered how much she should say. All she had at this point was a theory. It was a really good theory, but if she was wrong… Better to be cautious just a little longer, not go shooting streams of salt water at hapless bats for no reason.
She thanked Alfred warmly for his help and stood to leave. But he stood too and coughed in that distinct “we’re not done yet” way he had that was so reminiscent of Batman.
“Given the nature of our discussion, miss, this might not be the ideal time to introduce the topic,” Alfred said, the Pennyworth tact mechanism engaged once more as he saw the chance to check a housekeeping matter off his to do list (while pressing Miss Selina, ever so gently, for some detail about her inquiry). “But I was wondering if you had occasion to notice the new centerpiece in the dining room.”
Selina’s eyes narrowed, the sharp snap-focus of a predator sensing prey.
“A centerpiece? A new centerpiece? As in extra flowers?” she asked pointedly.
“In a manner of speaking,” Alfred said mildly. He reacted to hostile felinity just as he did to blustery Battitude, by not reacting at all. He calmly explained the history of the fifth flower arrangement, his decision to reinstate it during that brief period when the dining room was again in daily use, and his certainty that Edith Mason, the charming and refined lady at the floral shop, was most eager to hear how her efforts had been received.
“Alfred,” Catwoman decreed in the tone she once used to confront the most vicious and violent men of the underworld. “As mistress of the manor, you have my heartfelt and unambiguous permission to have as many dear, precious flowers as you like brutally and savagely ripped from the warm embrace of Mother Earth. If Bruce or anyone else has a problem with that, you send ‘em to me—Please.”
She punctuated the last word with a vicious clawing motion, turned on her heel, and left.
There was no bittersweet musing at Jean Paul’s second stop. To the workmen at the executive airstrip, he was nothing more than paperwork with legs: ten canisters Jet-A1 aviation fuel standard, ten canisters with a higher antioxidant mix, and five with a richer mix of corrosion inhibitors, sign here. And here. Initial this one. And that one. Now I gotta make a photocopy of your ID. Hey, you look kinda familiar. You didn’t go to PS 18, didja? No, oh well. Too bad about the Knights last night, huh? The Knights. What, do you live in a cave? The Knights. They lost. Again. 43—7. Well, here’s your ID back, now initial it there, please.
Say what you would about nature (when Poison Ivy wasn’t within earshot), but it bestowed the most brilliant and beautiful plumage on the males. It was not becoming for a male bird to sit humbly in the corner and keep his splendor a secret. No, a male bird was made to strut. –kwak!
Oswald couldn’t guess how much extra cash he would make from the Catwoman-Clayface teamup he’d arranged, but it would certainly cover a few new suits. –kwak– It would, that is, if he actually paid for them, which of course, he would not. Paying was for peasants.
He waddled to the backroom and searched. While he distanced himself from the penny-ante minutia of his operation, he knew that Snipe still had a half-carton of blank American Express cards left from the Star City hijacking. He was disappointed to see they were green. He preferred gold or, on rare occasions, platinum, but green were all that was left. He took one, returned to his office, and extracted a small flat printer from his desk.
Now for a name.
He took a folder from his desk and thumbed through the printouts for that article. Yes here it was, Nigma had sent it to him over that worldwide inter-webby-mailnet.
“New multicolored bird found in India,” it read. Perfect.
Bugun Liocichla the new species was called, what a splendid name. He copied this onto the card printer, then returned his attention to the article. “The bird has a black cap, a bright yellow patch around the eyes and yellow, crimson, black and white patches on the wing.” Why that sounded charming –kwak– he would consider that for his new suit. –kwak– Black hat, yellow vest, touch of crimson –kwak– “Who is that dashing fellow?” “Why that’s Bugun Liocichla, of the Nob Hill Liocichlas.” –kwak–
Returning to the Batcave, the first thing Selina checked was the hologram Batman used to map out his nightly patrols. It still highlighted Blackgate, the flower market, and Museum Mile. That was days ago. If he hadn’t mapped out a new itinerary since that night, it didn’t seem likely that he was patrolling at all. She checked his logs… And sure enough, the last entry was for that same night. He’d investigated the security breach at Blackgate (and Selina chuckled, spotting each detail of the Monarch of Menace escape that only made sense only if you knew he was Clayface). Then Batman made a slow pass through the area around the flower market and noted several environmental features around Ivy’s greenhouse. And then he met Catwoman at the museum as they’d arranged. Selina read that last section with interest. She knew she shouldn’t waste time on it. She was there; she already knew what happened… But she couldn’t tear herself away from the words on the screen. Bruce’s—no, Batman’s private thoughts as he watched Catwoman do what she did best. It was… astonishing.
“She was so entirely in her element. It was impossible not to be affected by this most fundamental part of her bubbling to the surface with such passion and energy. This ability to penetrate the most carefully guarded perimeter, to slip past the most rigorous defenses and sidestep the most sensitive triggers, to let no nuisance of a lock, (or a law, or a crimefighter) come between her and her prize. She wants to do a gallery tomorrow night, Gallery Athena. I’m actually looking forward to it.”
There was nothing more after that. He hadn’t made a single entry since that night. And Batman never skipped the logs after patrol.
He hadn’t been patrolling, by now she was sure of it. He got changed each night and drove off into the city, but he didn’t patrol…
He went back to Ivy’s greenhouse.
She had no proof, of course, of any of it. It was still nothing but theory, and she was sure the great detective would insist on more investigation, scrupulous marshalling of facts, and rational analysis of same. But Selina was not a detective, and Catwoman didn’t need to prove anything in a court of law. Her gut told her she was right and she trusted it. Each night, he was going back to Ivy. He was going back to Ivy… to have his noose tightened.
Humility was for dull hens with stubby brown feathers. It was not for Oswald Cobblepot. Oswald was the first to say he kept up with the times. He kept up with the times –kwak– better than villains half his age.
The world had changed. You couldn’t make up any old credit card number like you used to. –kwak– This darned identity theft. Because of that worldwide inter-mail-ee webnet, every third pigeon was getting plucked just sitting at home reading about the New Bugun bird found in India. So now they had a dozen ways to spot a fake credit card number. Every little hot dog stand was wired in and hooked up.
So Oswald waddled to the bar, which was equally wired in and hooked up. He thumbed through the previous night’s receipts until he found someone he didn’t care for. Pradesh from the White Dragon Triad. Perfect. Thirty-day tab was two weeks in arrears. Pinched Raven and Wren. Had a face like a ferret. Perfect. He took down the number from Pradesh’s receipt and returned to his office to finish stamping out Bugun Liocichla’s credit card.
Catwoman hissed at the screen and closed Batman’s duty log. It took a little trial and error to find the file she wanted, but finally:
… …::Threat Analysis: Summary Overview::… …
all pheromone based, but smell isn’t the only means of transference. Smell is the fastest-acting, as the nasal passages have direct access to the brain. Other means such as injection (typically via thorn puncture) or tactile (typically a trans-dermal salve introduced through a kiss) must travel through the bloodstream and hence take longer to have an effect, but all methods seem equally potent once the victim is enthralled. Since anti-tox must build up for 2-3 weeks before providing reliable immunity, and since the lag from thorn or kiss exposure is no more than 5-15 minutes depending on the subject’s metabolism, very little can be gained so far as
Selina started. There was a sharp noise in the Batmobile hangar—and she cursed herself for wasting time earlier reading the museum log—but there had been no loud rumble from the car. She’d been lost in thought while she was reading, but she couldn’t be so lost that she wouldn’t notice the roar of the Batmobile shaking the walls of the cavern. This was something else. She unfurled her whip and went to investigate.
Outrageous! IT WAS OUTRAGEOUS!
He, Oswald Cobblepot, arrested! It was, it was, it wasn’t possible.
Of course, he had tried to bribe the policemen who carted him off, he was being arrested!
Of course, he had struck the manager on the head with his umbrella, the boorish brigand was calling the police to take him away!
Of course, he had threatened the doorman, the thrice-damned thug was trying to detain him while the boorish brigand manager called the police!
And of course, he had bit the sales clerk, he had cast aspersions on the legitimacy of Oswald’s Bugun Liocichla credit card!
Now he had to endure the indignity of a ride to the 12th precinct, a decidedly proletarian precinct –kwak– and horror-of-horrors be fingerprinted before he could call Raven to call Judge Bungaree. Who knew how much that would cost him. 10-grand in the short run, that was the going rate. But in the long run, what would it cost? Having to use a pocket-judge like Bungaree for a personal matter. It was bad for business, bad for Iceberg business. Judge Bungaree was kept on retainer for cleaning up after Oswald’s agents, not Oswald himself!
But what choice did he have? He owned the Iceberg personally. If he was arrested, he could lose his liquor license. Then what? The nightclub was only a piddling percentage of his income, but it was his visible income, his legitimate income—and most of all, it was his pride and joy. He simply could not lose the position it afforded him in Gotham’s underworld. No, he could not jeopardize it, he simply could not.
So he had Raven contact the good Judge Bungaree, and in a few hours, the whole unpleasant episode would be expunged. He couldn’t say what it would cost him down the line.
He would have to be more careful in the future.
The first time Catwoman met Jean Paul Valley, he was what other rogues called “AzBat” or “the Imposter,” and what Selina herself would always think of as “that awful thing inside the Bat costume.” Now that he’d foresworn the Bat mantle, she managed to tolerate Azrael—barely—and had even found it possible to see the man inside the helmet as something-less-than-completely-annoying.
Nevertheless, she would never forget or completely forgive that first encounter. She was getting a deadly neurotoxin out of circulation and he accused her of stealing it for terrorists. The toxin was stored in awkward twenty kilo canisters—not unlike the tanks of jet fuel Jean Paul was unloading now. Quite like them in fact, and she watched with a cruel, silent cat-smile as he unloaded tank after tank from the van and stacked them in the corner.
He turned finally, feeling the cold, malevolent eyes watching him.
Not a single word was said aloud. There was no need. The scene was such a perfect reversal of that first meeting, the words of that night replayed just as distinctly in both their memories:
“On a Catwalk? My, haven’t we changed.”
“And you. From mere theft to terrorist blackmail, or at least an accomplice.”
“That’s not funny.”
It went on. Silent. Mocking. Contemptuous.
“That’s close enough.”
“You’re right. Close enough to realize you’re not him.”
Selina gave a scornful half-smile, turned, and left the hangar.
Pheromones. It was her pet name for Jean Paul Valley, because he lacked them. He wasn’t good for much in Selina’s view, but this chance meeting did accomplish one thing: it suggested a way to proceed on the other pheromones matter.
Women. They had to play their little games. Actresses were the worst, but she-rogues were a close second. He knew Catwoman had an agenda when she’d called him to her lair the first time. He told her he knew. He asked her pointblank. But would she admit it? No. Would she just come out and tell him? Of course not. So he left a phone number. That way, when she was ready to come clean, she wouldn’t have to go through Oswald again. He figured she’d wait a week, tops. He never expected to be returning to the cat lair in less than twelve hours.
Matt certainly wasn’t angry about the development. Selina Kyle was the hottest woman in Gotham who he hadn’t pissed off and who hadn’t pissed him off. He put a lot of stock in that. A one-on-one sitdown with Catwoman, just the two of them, it was like location shooting in Rome: sure the producers sent you for reasons of their own, but you were still in Rome, getting VIP treatment on someone else’s tab. What’s not to enjoy?
Catwoman wasted no time. This was a cards-on-the-table meeting: Matt liked looking at her and didn’t bother hiding it. Catwoman had an agenda and wouldn’t hide it either.
“Who else knew the truth about you and Harley?” she asked bluntly.
“Well, it was common knowledge that Monarch and Harley were an item,” he answered amiably. “But if you mean ‘me and Harley’ as in knowing I was the Monarch, Oswald figured it out straight off. And then later, of course, Pammy butted her nose in.”
There was an abrupt shift in the room. While he had no literal sense of hot or cold, Matt would have sworn the temperature dropped a good fifteen degrees.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making myself out to be the victim on that score,” he added quickly. “I’m the one who told her. Figured if I didn’t, Harley would probably let it slip. Girls do talk, you know. And, well, you know the history, me and Pammy.”
“Still sore about the potpourri?” Catwoman asked wryly.
“Among other things.”
“So, long story short, she was hostile,” Selina guessed.
“I guess so. She didn’t say it in so many words at first, but the incoherent shrieking and physical violence was a good indication.”
“Hostile enough, would you think, that she’d like to kill you? Or have you killed?”
“Without getting into scientific and philosophical discussions of whether that’s possible, oh yeah. This was Joker level hatred at least. Maybe she would have cooled down eventually if it hadn’t been for the sequel at Arkham, but I distinctly heard the words ‘kill him’ after that.”
“Then I have one more question,” Catwoman said softly. “A delicate question.”
He scrunched up the mud on the upper right of his forehead to mimic raising an eyebrow.
“I’m a man made of clay, Catwoman, I don’t think there are any more ‘delicate’ questions.”
She smiled, then frowned, then sighed, then spoke.
“Matt, Ivy can’t ‘affect you,’ right?”
He laughed, a deep, rumbling laugh that made his clay ripple.
“Oh, she can affect me plenty, Catty. She can annoy the living hell out of me. She can actually make me consider, for about ten uninterrupted seconds, that there are worse creatures running around this world than Rebecca. But if you mean her pheromones, I can’t even smell them, let alone be affected by them.”
“In that case, you’re right. I do want something from you, Matt Hagen. I told you I didn’t, and now it turns out I do.”
Selina noticed three things simultaneously: Hagen’s clay was thickening as it had on their last meeting. She guessed this was how he registered strong emotion. His expression, on the other hand, had frozen, and that made the clay-thickening seem a little more threatening. Then there was the ooze. Six slow tendrils of creepy horror movie ooze had trickled down from his body and were seeping across the floor towards her chair.
“Matthew,” she said with a forced, firm calm. “Is there something I should know?”
“You seem like a really nice lady,” he said slowly, “for a she-rogue and all.”
The ooze had reached her feet. Selina didn’t want to be rude; if this action wasn’t as threatening as it looked, she didn’t want to offend the man she was appealing to for help. But instinct said that this oozing thing was threatening, and instinctively she raised her feet slightly off the floor.
The oozing clay responded faster than she would have thought possible, splashing up like water and coiling around her as it hardened into a very strong, viscous cocoon that stretched from her shoulders down to her ankles.
“What the hell!” she screamed, thrashing wildly.
The cocoon contracted, shrinking from her shoulder down to her hips and from her ankle up to her knee. He was holding less of her, but holding it tighter.
“You seem nice,” Matt repeated icily, “but I’ve heard words like that before, Cat. Words just like that. ‘I told you I didn’t want anything, but now it turns out I do.’ Rebecca said that.
“See, I thought she was an actress when we met. Most of the hot women you meet at the studio are. Two, three dates later after five, six times in the sack, comes out that she’s a suit. Never took an acting class in her life, never stepped in front of a camera. Turns out she did product placements, get 007 to drive a BMW in the new Bond flick, get Charlie’s Angels to drink a Pepsi. Came as a bit of a shock, finding out she was connected to the serious money going into movies, my movies…
“Now she didn’t actually say she was an actress. Didn’t lie, she just let me assume. She didn’t have any reason to lie, y’see. Nothing in it for her. I had no say whether my character uses a Nokia or a Motorola in the movie. They sit me in a Beemer, I drive a Beemer. They sit me in a Corvette, I drive the ‘Vette. Nothing in it for her. ‘Matt, sweetie, I don’t want a thing. Really. Just having a good time together, aren’t we?’
“And we were. We did. She waited six months before even hinting. Then it all came out. Seems she was also handling a pharmaceutical company. Not something they can easily slide into a script like a Domino’s pizza. Hero’s friend walks in carrying a pizza box, no big deal, right? But the hero’s friend can’t just casually mention he’s taking Vrickosak for painful anal warts, ‘contact your physician, caution may be habit forming, discontinue use if drowsiness or vomiting ensues for more than sixteen hours, but hey Grant, I ran those plates like you wanted and your hunch was right, McCafferty lives in the Bronx!’”
“MATT!” Catwoman interrupted, punching helplessly at the clay cocoon that still encased her thighs. “I’d be a much more sympathetic listener if you weren’t, y’know…”
She pushed down on her clay prison as if trying to squeeze out of a skirt that was too tight.
Clayface watched her struggle for a few moments, then tentatively released her.
“Thank you,” Selina said flatly.
He nodded, not exactly ashamed, but aware that his reaction had been a little over the top.
“So conventional product placements wouldn’t work,” she said, inviting him to continue the story.
“Surprised you were listening,” Matt said. “Sorry about that. You hit a nerve.”
“I never told anyone what really happened,” Matt said, taking on his old shape and appearance, the way he’d looked that day in Aspen with Rebecca.
“Maybe it’s time you did,” Selina suggested.
“Conventional product placements wouldn’t work,” he nodded, “but Rebecca had a plan. I could use this one product on the Q.T. It was not called ‘Facelift in a Jar’ or whatever that urban legend says. They hadn’t got around to finding a consumer-friendly name yet. There was some focus group in Boston working on that. The product I was pitched was called PB16-L. Ain’t that sexy?”
Selina smiled sadly, the cynical humor about the blackest event of his life reminding her of Harvey.
“Rebecca’s plan was that I’d use PB16-L for a role and get the credit for a miraculous transformation ‘You know just like De Niro putting on that sixty pounds for Raging Bull.’ I said no. If I was going to get a De Niro rep for this stunning physical change, I sure wasn’t gonna turn around and say it came out of a needle. Plus, the whole idea of injections into my face. This was ten years before botox. Shooting stuff into your face? It was the sickest goddamn thing I ever heard.”
“You never agreed?” Selina asked, beginning to guess what was coming, and beginning to understand the malevolent creativity of Matt’s revenge scenarios if her guess was right.
“I never agreed,” he said distinctly. “All I agreed to was skiing in Aspen with Rebecca. Did a little Jack Daniels and coke with her that night, but… Well, we’d done that before and I never passed out, let’s leave it at that.”
“She drugged you.”
“She drugged me. I know it. Not a doubt in my mind. While I was out, she injected me with that… that fucking poison. Not sure how many times she did it or how long it took, but by the time we got back to L.A., I was hooked.”
Selina found she believed the story that far. Something about his impassioned bitterness, not to mention his previous remarks about this Rebecca and the way he’d attacked Selina when she inadvertently echoed the other woman’s words. But then Hagen swore he never used PB16-L voluntarily, that he was a helpless addict for the next three months in which he’d used it. Selina was skeptical of that part. It was certainly possible, but it was just as possible that he dabbled quite willingly once he saw what it could do for him. If that were true and he preferred to forget that part of his history, she saw no harm in it.
After about three months, Matt said, he had “some kind of reaction,” the life threatening kind, the kind where they use the paddles in the ambulance. He woke up in a hospital emergency room while some suit from the studio press office spun the kind of story they spin when they assume their star’s been freebasing.
“That’s where the urban legend goes off the rails,” Matt said dryly. “PB16-L was never produced commercially. ‘Hey look, we made two grand off this guy before he died and his family sued us for forty million’ does not make for a very happy report to the stockholders. Daggett Industries did what any company would do, they buried it and then they buried the shovel. They gave the researchers nice fat retirement packages; they’d all signed NDAs, the end. Only loose end was…” he stopped and grinned. “Yours truly.”
Selina nodded sadly.
“So they decided to bury you.”
“Nah. I guess they might have, or they might have tried to pay me off first if they’d known about me. I don’t know what Rebecca told them about me. I do know that everything she told me about them was a boldfaced lie. The only one that knew exactly what Rebecca was setting up was Rebecca.
“And at the time, I could choose between film projects that paid three million a pop. I could work up enough press to bury her just clearing my throat. She herself, without the company, didn’t have any kind of resources to buy me or fight me or… So, she used the one thing she did have: PB16-L. Little more cocaine, a lot of vodka, and this time, instead of injecting the stuff under my skin, she pumps it into an artery. Twelve hours of convulsions later…” He glorped into his natural appearance. “…Clayface.”
Jean Paul thought it was entirely possible that was the worst eighty seconds of his life. He couldn’t say for certain. That would involve drudging up the memories of other phenomenally bad moments, examining them in all their hideous detail, and making comparisons. Not being a masochist, he didn’t feel that was worth the effort. It was enough to stand where he was, satisfied that his legs were not as shaky as they felt, and be happy he hadn’t thrown up on Batman's jet fuel.
What was it about that woman? Did he kill a cat in a former life or something?
They’d had bad moments before, god knows, but there was always some part of Azrael in the picture. This was just him, it just happened –boom– took him completely off guard.
Azrael hadn’t said a word since it happened, he noticed. Not that Jean Paul could blame him; god knows he’d be hiding under a rock if he could. He wondered if Az would mention it when he decloaked or just add scalloped epaulettes to the armor.
Matt Hagen was an action star. Few of his performances were of the cathartic, emotionally wrenching variety. But even he had taken classes in “the Method.” He’d performed the exercises, he’d “accessed” all the latent anger at his father, resentment of his mother, and lust for his babysitter until blah-blah-blah-blah-blah he finally achieved “the breakthrough.” It was bullshit. It was exhausting. And it was unpleasant. But at the end of it, there was a quiet, peaceful lightness like he’d never felt before.
As he finished telling Catwoman how Clayface came into being, he felt a hint of that same buoyant calm.
“So yeah, I got screwed,” he concluded soberly. “I didn’t do anything worse than most ‘Hollywood bad boys.’ Some dames, some drugs, yeah, sure. I’m no saint; I’m just an actor. They wind up an E! True Hollywood Story and I wind up next to Killer Croc in Bartholomew’s anger management session, tell me that’s right.”
“You’ll get no argument from me,” Selina agreed readily. “You were thoroughly screwed.”
He smiled and chuckled at the anticlimax.
“I was thoroughly screwed,” he repeated.
“Thoroughly,” Selina agreed.
And she nodded.
There it was. A quiet peaceful lightness.
“So,” he announced, trying to find his way back from monologue to conversation. “You’re obviously very interested in Poison Ivy—eh, not THAT kind of interested,” he added quickly. “This idea you want to pitch me, can I hazard a guess that this is something Pammy isn’t going to like?”
Catwoman smiled—quite a lovely smile, even if it was a touch evil-looking.
“Then I’m game,” he said in his most charming love scene delivery. “Especially if it means spending a little more time with you.”
To be continued…