“This sword has not run through any infidels in quite some time, but I am sure it is still sharp enough.”
That’s what he said. Really.
“Mark, word of advice,” I told him, ignoring a poke at my back with the tip of the sword. “If that’s the best you can do on the villainous banter, maybe steer clear of doing it in English. With the guttural accent, you’ve got a real MWA-HAHA thing going and it comes off pretty silly.”
“These are your chosen last words, woman?”
There was another poke at the small of my back, a poke that was pure bluff… I hoped. I could have pivoted and grabbed, but it was risky. My claws can do plenty of damage, even through Bat-body armor I can draw blood and tear meat, but a blind swipe would probably miss. An effective strike would mean holding the blade in place while I aimed at the arm holding it, i.e. a test of strength, if only for a second or two. And I knew from our first fight that he was strong. That’s why I’d opted for banter in the first place, and that’s why I kept on with it. If you keep your head in these situations instead of going all high kicks and headbutts like some mindless she-Rambo, something always shifts.
“Fine, Mark, be that way. Mwa-haha all you want if it makes you feel like a man. But we both know you’ve got two very serious problems to clear up before you can use that sword on me. And since I know that as well as you do, the threats do come off a bit silly.”
“American arrogance,” he muttered, and I laughed.
“You’re a pretty interesting guy, Mark. You’re talking to someone draped in purple leather from head to toe and wearing a catmask, and you think ‘woman’ and ‘American’ are the shots to take? I don’t know if you’ve got the imagination for this kind of work, Mark, I really don’t. But let’s put that aside and talk about your problems, shall we?”
I hadn’t raised my hands at his pointy-stick-in-the-back routine, and now I turned and stepped backward, clear of the blade. He continued to point it at me like it was a magic wand or something, and I was forced to point out that the sword-as-phallus thing is a sad enough metaphor with actual warriors ready to strike. But when you can’t actually use the weapon, and particularly when your would-be victim knows you can’t use it…
As I spoke, the tip of the blade inched downward, just like a wilting erection. It was unbelievable, really, considering the topic of conversation. You’d think the idiot would have just resheathed as quickly as possible, get the thing out of sight, out of mind. But that’s the thing about the truly stupid ones: when they don’t get it, they don’t get any of it. Their consistency is amazing... and the reason banter works. If there’s a mistake to be made, they’ll make it. You just need to give them time.
“Your problems,” I repeated. “First and foremost, Mark, you’d be a fool to kill me before finding out how I know that you’re Mark Barras, Orellistr 21 in Kreis 7, close enough to Mum’s place in Seefeld to go home for Sunday dinner each week.”
“How do you know this?” came the predictable question in the predictably menacing delivery.
“Of course, if you manage to answer that one, you’ve still got the original difficulty. When I first got to Zurich, I thought you must be an incredible wimp not to have polished off the vault in a single strike.”
He laughed bitterly, and I smiled.
“Yes, well, that was before I saw it, obviously. Then I faced that charming vertical climb and your problem became clear. You can’t get the stuff out. You can stuff your pockets with gems each trip, sure. But the easiest things to take down here are the hardest to sell up there, aren’t they? Legit dealers have to document where the stones come from. They ask questions you can’t answer. And you don’t have the contacts in the black market to find the other kind of dealers, let alone judge which ones will buy and which will slit your throat for the first handful of whatever you bring them.”
He tilted his head forward ever so slightly, not quite a nod, but a grudging admission that I was right.
“All I have been able to sell are a few gold pieces,” he said. “And there is a limit to how many of those can be found in a great aunt’s attic without arousing suspicion. I managed to get a jeweled anlace to the surface, only to have a thieving antiques dealer tell me it was a twentieth century fake made to cash in on an American fad called Dungeons & Dragons.”
The bitter laugh returned, and he gestured around the heaps of treasure, repeating the phrase ‘dungeons and dragons.’
“The lying cheat offered me a hundred Euros for it.”
“Not exactly the payday you killed your brother for,” I noted.
He looked up sharply.
“Carl would not have known where to find a first class fence any more than I do,” he said coldly.
That wasn’t necessarily true. Carl did work at the bank. Bernard knew me and Igor, and Mark’s father, Carl Augustiner Sr, undoubtedly had a few connected clients as well. If Carl Jr. had stuck with it instead of opting for the instant payoff, he would have eventually learned a name or two. At least, he would have if he’d lived. I didn’t name names, of course, but I let Mark know just enough of this to throw him off balance. He hadn’t denied killing his brother, but he hadn’t confirmed it either. I needed to change that.
I dangled highlights of my resume in front of him: the Egyptian antiquities, the Greek mirror and the Etruscan vase; the Hapsburg Dagger, the Kimberley Canary and the Crimson Star; my first old master was a Cezanne, my last a Rembrandt… and so on.
The shift, when it came, was quite dramatic. He still didn’t like me, he still didn’t trust me, but it finally dawned on him that he was standing in front of a world class thief, breathing the same air as someone with all the fencing connections he lacked. He became more communicative. It took some doing to really put him off his guard, though. It took a half-hour discussion of the practical problems removing a two hundred pound Maya jaguar from a well-secured gallery without an army of henchmen, but finally I was able to get the whole story. He confirmed each aspect of my theory: Carl’s revelation about the vault, the betrayal and the murder, all just as I had guessed it.
“Thank you,” I said, tapping a ball on the head of my whip and the WayneTech camera it concealed. “I was afraid I might have to edit out the parts where I talked about getting the stone jaguar. Pesky thing about these digital recorders, the embedded timestamps are hard to tamper with. But you were good enough to wait until I finished before the big confession, so…”
I was ready for the sword strike that came next; it was painfully predictable. I had maneuvered over to the shields and used one to block rather than disarming him with the whip. His strikes were panicked, desperate, and unfocused. It was better to let him vent a bit—and tire himself out—rather than disarm him at once and let the frustration keep building. I needed him to focus, and that wasn’t going to happen until he calmed the hell down.
He managed to land four actual blows against the shield, each a little wilder and weaker than the last. That’s the thing about amateurs, they’re not used to confrontations and they burn up the adrenaline during foreplay. I kicked him back after the fourth strike and he didn’t have the stuff to come back at me. The whip took care of the rest, but once he was down and disarmed, I decided to give his hand a good clawing to preempt any more swordplay.
“Now then,” I resumed, “Don’t get all panicky in a cave full of lethal weapons. Your confession isn’t going to the police unless you absolutely insist on it. It’s going to the partners, and since they don’t want the existence of this vault revealed to the world, they’ll keep it to themselves as long as you cooperate.”
“C-cooperate?” he panted.
“When you’re arrested for breaking into a different vault—several in fact. Turns out four different jewelers on the Bahnhofstrasse were burgled tonight, Mark, with all the proceeds left in your flat… where the police should be finding it right about now. Ta!”
$280 –kwak– with discounts –kwak– to have the schedules fiddled with until Poison Ivy’s session with Dr. Bartholomew preceded his own, and another $50 to have Saul Vics look the other way so they could have a private chat in the outer office. Of course, the latter was only theoretical money, not hard cash. A $50 credit towards a Bose entertainment center Vics wanted and to which Oswald was now applying his bribes. The $280, unfortunately, had to be paid to an office temp, regrettably not as gullible as Vics and insisting on actual cash.
It was an expense, to be sure. Especially when all Oswald needed to do to see Ivy face-to-face was ignore his prepaid exemption from the social hour and let himself be taken to the common room like everyone else. But bribes were non-refundable, and it was so much more agreeable to have privacy for conversations of this nature.
Oswald perused an ancient Newsweek featuring Martin Sheen, ultra-liberal star of the West Wing portraying an ultra-liberal president, sharing his thoughts on the newly elected Alexander Luthor… Oswald marveled that even in the criminal wing of an insane asylum, the magazines outside a doctor’s office must be years out of date.
At last the door opened, and Ivy emerged speaking hurriedly about yellow roses and Peruvian lilies. Bartholomew assured her they would pick up there next time, and she called him a small-minded troglodyte without taste, brains, or a soul.
So that was it. Kitty’s adventure in the vault out of legend concluded exactly where it began, in Bernard’s office over a fresh box of Sprüngli pralines. No race up a pyramid of fire to reach the totem of space-time before the infidel. Not a single pillar of godlight to burn the unworthy seekers into ash. Not that I was complaining. I don’t think Bruce would be very amused if I asked him to move his giant penny so I could put the Ark of the Covenant in his trophy room.
Bernard was pleased. The arrest went as expected, and the video evidence of Mark’s confession was entrusted to Carl Senior. If and when Mark got out of prison, it would be his decision how to proceed. After all, they were both his sons.
We hadn’t discussed payment, but I knew the moment had arrived when Bernard scratched his nose. It’s a very subtle signal, like Alfred’s cough. I’m not even sure he’s aware of it, but it means the social pleasantries are concluded—or in this case, the unsavory blackmailing of the junior partner’s bastard son is concluded—and he’s ready to get down to business.
He hit the intercom, and Carl Senior came in with a thin, elegant weapon, like a miniature dagger. His English wasn’t nearly as fluent as Bernard’s, and he spoke very carefully, presumably from a memorized script.
“The police found this in Mark’s flat,” he said, handing me the piece. “Because it did not belong to any of the jewelers that were robbed, it came to me. It is surely from the vault. It is now yours. For payment. With thanks.”
“The anlace he tried to sell,” I guessed, examining it.
It was a beautiful piece. Solid gold. The handle depicted a helmeted figure in Grecian dress with long flowing hair that curved back into the bottom of the toga, making a handy loop to grip the thing. The figure held a disc, also gold and pocked with red enamel that might have been made from garnet dust or even ruby.
I thanked them both… It felt very, very strange… Of all the payoffs I’d received over the years, this was the most solemn ceremony. It felt good to have beaten the bad guy. It felt very good to have such an exquisite (and valuable) memento of the adventure. It felt odd to know it was part of the treasure a human being had killed his own brother to obtain. And it felt… good but… confusing… for the men paying me off at the end of a job to be so grateful.
Bruce guessed what was happening when Wayne One returned to Gotham but Selina didn’t return to the manor. He’d done the same thing when she got back from Xanadu: Batman had a gift to deliver, so he avoided her as Bruce Wayne until he could meet her on a rooftop and present it to her in costume. This seemed like the same dynamic. If Selina wasn’t coming home to the manor, it was almost certainly because she wanted to see Batman first.
Under other circumstances, he’d be as eager as she was. But tonight, Batman had news that Kitten wasn’t going to like.
Reasoning that, even without the unwelcome news, the reunion with Catwoman would take some time, he called Dick to take over his early patrol.
I’d never been terribly domestic, especially with the cat lairs, but tonight I kept fluffing the pillows and dusting the knickknacks. I was wild with excitement, had been ever since the plane touched down. It built in the taxi from the airstrip, it spiked when I opened the door to the lair, and then it settled into this dizzy euphoria of anticipation.
I couldn’t even remember when I’d been this high.
First time in the catsuit was pretty damn good. First encounter with Batman, of course, and the first kiss on Cartier’s roof… getting away with the Sekhmet amulet after he put up such a fight—Oh, and getting away with the Picasso that time! After he stayed on my heels all the way down to 28th Street…
The loot! My god, I forgot the loot!
I ran to my bag and unpacked the anlace. It was just large enough to use as a letter opener in the morning room—that’s assuming I didn’t want to place it in the trophy room after all. It rather appealed, having something of mine in there besides an old whip handle.
In any case, whatever I might do with it in the future, tonight it was the prize. It was Catwoman’s prize for a job well done, and a prize Batman had forbidden me to take (always a bonus). When Batman is expected at the lair any minute, you want the forbidden object front and center.
The sun had gone down an hour ago. He could arrive at any time… I fluffed the pillows again and straightened a Bast statuette. My heart was beating like a hummingbird’s.
Before I left, I told Bruce I’d been sucked into plenty of adventures like this when I was working. I’d thought about that the whole flight home. The throwback had been sweet, of course, that taste of my old life after so long… But then… then… Meooooooowwww…
There was one thing I could never have back then. A good night was a good night. A good prowl was the sweetest pleasure I knew. But when it was over, there was just home, Whiskers and Nutmeg. A cup of cocoa and the memory of a new Bat-encounter to dream on. But now… now… Meoooooooooooooowwwww.
I licked a glovetip and buffed the gold emblem on the chest of the Bast statue.
I arranged myself in a feline pose on the sofa, then gave the pillow a last fluff and lay back again.
An hour and ten minutes since the sun went down.
Dick Grayson walked into the living room and regarded his wife with a stunned expression.
“Babs, we may want to postpone the dinner with Wally and Linda,” he said dully.
“Oh hell, what’s up? Some League thing? I didn’t see anything in the briefing, but I only skimmed…”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s just… I’ve been grounded.”
“I… It… Y’ever see something or hear something that reminds you so much of the past, you just snap right back into being Batgirl?”
“I guess, sort of. Sometimes when I hear a siren I still get the itch to—”
“No, I don’t mean a reminder; I mean a complete flashback. ‘Cause I was just on the phone with Bruce. And one minute, I’m a grown man standing in my own kitchen. And a second later, it’s like: cape, short pants, and I hear myself needling him about getting me out of the way so he could go after Catwoman on his own. And, well, I’m grounded for two weeks.”
Barbara stared in horror, unable for a moment to even laugh at this lunacy.
“Well first, Dickie, my silllybird, you are a grown man now, and your father cannot ground you, send you to your room, or dock your allowance.”
“Yeah, I do realize that, Babs. But if we go out with Wally and Linda, this is all going to come out. I know Wally, and somehow or other, between the cheese fondue and the margaritas, the whole story will come out. And then he’s going to go to some League meeting and have a laughing fit every time Bruce opens his mouth. Kyle will start ribbing him, ‘Mr. Flash, perhaps you’d like to tell the rest of the class what’s so funny,’ and before I know it, the whole story is telepathically broadcast to four star systems.”
“Should have thought of that before you teased him,” Barbara noted.
“I, it… I couldn’t help it. Barbara, I couldn’t help it; it was a flashback. I mean, with all this ‘she’s the new queen of the underworld’ talk flying around all week, and now he wants Nightwing to take a patrol for him so he can go to the catlair and confront her himself.”
“He’s not ‘confronting’ her, Dickie. For God’s sake, we’re talking about Bruce and Selina here. She’s been out of town for weeks, they’re probably can’t wait to… y’know.”
“I realize that, Babs, I really do. But you’ve got to realize how often this kind of thing went on when I was growing up.”
She sighed, then put her hands on her hips in a typical Batgirl pose and spoke in the smug big sister tone that marked many of their early encounters.
“Seems you’ve dug yourself in pretty good there, Boy Wonder.”
Dick stalked off muttering “Holy nobody understands my problems, holy never had a sense of humor anyway, holy one innocent joke in the spirit of old times and the whole friggin’ world crashes down…”
Batman approached the cat lair as he had many times before. He removed a glove and placed the pad of his index finger on the reader, waited three seconds, and then slipped the Bat-pick into the lock. Forty seconds later, he was heading through an entrance hall just narrow enough to subject an intruder to a nasty spray of knockout gas or a paralyzing jolt of electricity if this were the kind of hideout that employed such traps, and finally reaching the main…
He stopped, subconscious tactical analysis of the physical space suspended and his body stunned into immobility by a much different kind of electricity as the sight registered:
Catwoman… stretched out on her side, on a leopard print throw… toying with a lethal looking dagger, rubbing the sharp tip of the blade against the sharper edge of her claw… Her tongue creeping out between her lips and licking the corner of her mouth… while she fixed him with a low, ravenous glare, like the predator she was eying prey…
“Dangerous toy you’ve got there,” he observed dryly.
She laid it aside brusquely and stood, an almost hypnotic rhythm in the sway of her hips as she approached with that unmistakably feline gait. Usually the movement was deliberately seductive… tonight, it was hungry.
“It is,” she said, a voice of hot, liquid want pouring over the words. “Dangerous… but I can handle it… I’m the only one who can.”
It was clear she meant him. It was also clear this was not the time to bring up the Iceberg situation. Electricity pulsed through his body as the tip of her claw traced the lower scallop of the bat emblem. Then her head tipped back, lips parted, in an unfathomable merging of cat and woman. She looked exactly like a cat exhibiting the openmouthed, flared nostril Flehmen reaction in response to prey; she looked exactly like a woman tilting her head to invite a kiss from her lover, she looked… she looked… ooooh.
Batman suppressed a wince as the tips of her claws poked through the crevice where the body armor met the belt, and he moved reflexively to grab her wrist and move it clear—but not before feeling the scrape of cold metal grazing the skin of his side. Instead of the usual hiss whenever he grabbed her that way, she let out a low, rumbling laugh that sent a shiver up his spine, around his neck, across his shoulder and straight down his chest into his gut… a husky laugh that spoke clearly as a single word: mine.
A strange, once-familiar paralysis spread like ice through his brain. He should say… something or… do something… not just stand there like a statue while this wild, untamable creature stood there taunting him with her brazen criminal felinity.
“Ahh-I…” he managed stupidly—when she pounced.
Instantly, he was on his back, on the floor as she straddled him.
They stared deep into each other’s eyes, excitement, anticipation, eagerness and even a touch of fear all building to a fever pitch. With a jolt, he pulled her head down hard, his own coming up to meet it halfway. Their mouths collided, tongues searching desperately…
OraCom: Channel 2—Nightwing
“Go ahead, O.”
..:: Update, sweet’ums. Highway patrol picked up the escapees on the Pennsylvania turnpike. They’ll be back in Blackgate by morning.::..
“Shit. They did get out of the state, and they made it all the way to Pennsylvania?”
..:: That’s where they keep the Pennsylvania turnpike. Which means…::..
“Fresh squeezed orange juice, and a toasted English muffin dripping with an absurd amount of butter and a tiny dollop of honey—in the morning. For now, I’m going to keep an eye on this place. If they’re not our jailbirds, they’re still up to something in there, I can smell it.”
..:: Roger. Oh, and I called Keystone. Linda's not having it. She's already lined up the babysitter, she's made sure Wally has the evening off, and she's got a new dress she's been wanting to wear that Wally, ahem, doesn't know about. Dinner is on, make your peace with it.::..
..:: What was that?::..
“I said the Melting Pot sounds good. Love that cheese fondue.”
Bruce lay naked on the floor of the lair, a jumble of fabric—cape, catsuit, and the leopard throw pulled down from the sofa—crumpled under his body and tangled through his legs and around his hip. Sharp claws had ripped fabric, and strong hands had torn leather. The remains would suffice for modesty around the lair, but not much else.
He looked up at Selina, the back of her hair just visible as she made coffee in the lair’s small kitchen, and he marveled, as always, at the transition from tigress to kitten. An hour before she was a wild thing, animal passion incarnate. And then, while her chest still heaved with exhaustion after the raw, primal sex, she became so tender, brushing his cheek with a kiss he could barely feel and curling into his side with a barely audible “I love you, Bruce.”
He reeled. In his depleted condition and in such charged circumstances, hearing his name on Catwoman’s lips was beyond… anything. Then, after a doze, she told him about her adventures and with such a glow of girlish enthusiasm that you had to love her. She got up, smiling, purring, happy to be home, and padded off to change into a t-shirt—although she undoubtedly had a spare costume on the premises, a thought that brought Bruce’s mind back to his own ravaged tunic and the inadvisability of attempting a late patrol now.
He got up, put on the leggings, and examined the dagger until she returned with the coffee.
“The souvenir I told you not to take?” he chided playfully.
“Oh, how I wish it were,” she said, sticking out her tongue. “But alas, no. Payment for services rendered. Freely given. Woof.”
“Well, it sounds like you earned it,” he admitted. Then he sipped, looked at her… and took a deep breath. It was time. “We have to talk,” he said gravely.
“A collective bargaining unit?” Ivy asked, crinkling her nose.
“Precisely, dear duchess of daffodils. It has come to my attention that we who are at the forefront of roguedom collectively squander a woeful amount on a few opportunistic individuals in this establishment simply to procure those privileges which are ours by right on the outside by virtue of who we are.”
“Are you addled? Oswald, you don’t imagine that I have to pay for favors in this place?”
A whiff of irritated lemon tickled Oswald’s nostrils, as if to punctuate the question.
“I am aware of your abilities, naturally,” he said, raising a handkerchief delicately to his nose. “But surely, there are undesirable consequences to using them here. An aftermath, if you will. Punitive bouts of solitary confinement and the like?”
“Naturally, but when I get worked up, it’s worth it.”
“Yes, kwak, of course, but for the day to day conveniences, it isn’t practical, now is it?”
“And if the fees charged by these uncouth peasants were reasonable, you might well wish to avail yourself of their services? An hour of solitude in a private bath, for instance, with a scented candle and mineral salts, kwak? Palatable food, served in your cell for you and a guest? Harley, perhaps? Kwakwak?”
“I have taken the liberty of negotiating fixed fees with sympathetic members of the staff for various services. As with arranging a diversion or alibi through the Iceberg, all arrangements would be made through myself or my appointed agent once I am released—”
“Meaning you get a cut. Knowing you, you probably get most of it, and the Arkham staff doing the dirty work is doing it for only a pittance of what we’re paying you.”
“My good woman, that is a matter between them and me. All that concerns you is that these low and reasonable rates are available only through my good offices. I assure you, Pamela, that none of you could possibly negotiate such a deal yourselves, for in all the years you have been incarcerated here, none of you have even attempted it. –kwak– It is only right that he who discovers the gold mine lays claim to an eagle’s share of the riches that will henceforth be -kwakwakak- Pamela please, the lemon, kwakwakwak…”
“In the history of mankind, nothing good has ever followed those words,” Selina noted.
“And this is no exception,” Bruce graveled. “Selina, that day you came down to the cave and got your fur so ruffled about Cobblepot, do you remember the one reservation I had about moving against him?”
“Let’s see… I remember the blood dripping from your fangs, ‘size and scope of the opportunity,’ ‘someone of Penguin’s stature that got away with it over and over again,’ ‘the message it would send…’”
“Admirable recall. And counterbalancing all that?”
“Oh, right. ‘The devil you know.’ Taking down someone so crucial to the underworld has repercussions, creates a power vacuum. Quite a risk when there’s no telling who might step up to take his place.”
“Exactly. And that’s exactly what appears to have occurred. Just as I feared, the new individual at the helm of Cobblepot’s former empire is infinitely more… problematic.”
“Woof. So much for a welcome home getaway to the Catitat, then. And who is this nuisance?”
Bruce’s lip twitched, and he casually turned the Bast statuette on the table as if to better admire it.
“As I said, from Batman’s point of view, this new adversary is uniquely problematic. Turns out, Catwoman… it’s you.”
To be continued…