It was a beautiful day to be outdoors. For Selina, there was no better place in Gotham on a day like this than the roof of the Gotham Museum of Art. The little snack cart was unpretentious, the food was tasty, and the view upstaged the sculptures that the museum displayed there to justify the use of the space. This time of year, there weren’t many tourists. The wind was just brisk enough to discourage them from staying long, but to those accustomed to rooftops, it was a perfect day. Selina bought Cassie a churro and went to join her on the hard little bench the girl had selected to look out over Robinson Park and the city beyond.
“Thank you,” Cassie said quietly, taking the churro. “I in trouble?”
“Why do you think that?” Selina asked.
Cassie didn’t need to look around to make sure they were alone. She had analyzed the space as soon as she sat down, and continued to monitor it for any change that might pose a threat or introduce the possibility of being overheard.
“Last time. Was here. Not do good.”
Selina smiled kindly.
“Catman. Yes, I did hear about that. Cassie, Barbara is… a crimefighter at heart, and she’s a cop’s daughter, and she’s married to a cop. None of that adds up to subtle. If she had her way, we’d be downstairs right now in the galleries where it happened, pretending to talk about the differences between Bast and Sekhmet. I, on the other hand, am a cat. Cats are nothing if not subtle.”
“Found that out hard way,” Cassie pouted.
“Let me guess: He laid a trail for you to follow. You thought you’d found a clue, and you were proud of yourself for being clever. You followed it thinking you’d surprise him, and wound up right where he wanted you to be each time?”
“You’re not the first. Cat-to-bat, Cassie, this goes no further. Barbara herself was led on just such a cat-and-flying-mouse chase: uptown, downtown and all around the Gotham Zoo, right into a close encounter with a live panther in their gift shop. She’s a better woman for it, too. Some things you only learn when you’re looking into the eyes of a hungry panther or—”
“Shh,” Cassie hissed, putting her hand on Selina’s arm. “No more talk. He hear.”
Selina glanced around, wondering how anyone could have approached that she didn’t notice. She saw no one on the roof except the cashier at the snack cart, far out of earshot. She turned back to Cassie quizzically, and Cassie just nodded very slightly at the horizon. Selina followed her eyes… and saw a few dots of red fluttering in the distance.
“See what I mean? Not subtle,” she said coolly.
Then she turned towards the dancing bits of color on the horizon and spoke softly into the wind as she’d seen Bruce do on occasion.
“Spitcurl, the red really is eye-catching when you’re hovering like that. You never thought of something more discreet, like maybe a sexy, scalloped black?”
The red cape continued to flutter in the wind, and Selina went on.
“Look, I get it. I’m being followed. Metropolis’s Flying Finest is keeping an eye on me. But we’re having a private conversation here, and the possibility of your listening in doesn’t help.”
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the dots of red got larger. Cassie put her hands angrily on her hips.
“Coming closer. Thinks that prove he not listening. You right. Crime-fight not subtle.”
Cassie stood and headed back towards the elevator that brought them up to the roof. Selina gave the horizon a final, angry glare before following.
“I thought you were the one that knew about teenage girls,” she hissed.
Metropolis Mercantile Bank, Commerce Bank of Metropolis, and First Metro Security. At one time, all three were a part of the LexCorp empire. Lex Luthor would never trouble himself with the day-to-day operations, naturally, but he would certainly never permit a bank he owned to issue loans to persons that went bankrupt a dozen times before.
He had tried to take down the Justice League before. He had failed.
More than once. More than twice. More than he would permit any underling or ally to fail and still be granted another try. Always his campaigns ended in failure. Attempting another had required a fearless look back at those previous efforts and an unflinching analysis of what had gone wrong.
Thankfully, Luthor had had nothing but time for such a look back for several months now. He’d known men and women, in corporate, political, and villain circles alike, who had destroyed their careers by adhering to this idea that they were right—no matter how much evidence to the contrary was piled at their feet. Their plan, their way, was always right. It must be so, and anyone who said otherwise would be flung into the Pit of Despair, in villain circles. In corporate ones, they were transferred to Minnesota just in time for the winter, a practice Luthor considered far more sadistic than the Pit of Despair.
But Lex Luthor was a bigger man than that; Lex Luthor understood the meaning behind the old adage about history. Instead of dooming himself to repeat the failures of the past, he would learn from those mistakes, build on them. He would know exactly where he had gone wrong in his previous attempts and correct those missteps so that this time, he would get it right. This time, he would not fall into those same traps again.
This time, he would succeed.
The first night Tom Blake came to Vault, he could barely choke out the password. “Catwoman gave me the combination,” that was the price to gain admittance to the hub of the underworld: his manhood, his dignity, his self-respect. “Catwoman gave me the combination.” He was not going to do it. He simply was not.
But then… there is a maxim that biological needs must be met before social ones, social before esteem, and so on. The man who has no oxygen doesn’t worry if he has no friends. Catman’s JOB depended on ready access to his peers among Gotham criminals. He needed to fence his goods or he wouldn’t eat. He needed to maintain visibility between heists or he could fall into that abyss of has-beens who had a good year once and then vanished into oblivion. So he sucked it up, he uttered the dreaded words, and he spent the next hour wallowing in defeat. The next night was the same… but he only wallowed for forty minutes. The next night, it was thirty. And the next, it didn’t sting quite as badly walking in the door. After ten or fifteen minutes, he shook it off completely.
Yes, he’d had to let Catwoman ‘win,’ in a sense, but now that he’d swallowed the bitter pill, it didn’t really hurt as much as he expected. He started to enjoy the feline surroundings. The flea-bitten she-cat did have the good taste to put up pictures of leopards and cheetahs. And the furnishings were much more to his taste than the Iceberg’s.
It’s not like he had to see her or talk to her, after all. Not like he had to sit down at her table and drink with her…
“Mr. Blake, Catwoman would like to see you in the VIP room ASAP.”
Catman looked up at Peahen with the stunned horror of a condemned man long forgotten in a crowded dungeon. Suddenly hearing his name called out, what could it mean? Time to rise and be led to the gallows?
“The who would what?” Blake asked savagely.
“Catwoman. Wants you up in the VIP room. She says you’re the only man for the job she’s got.”
Beneath his mask, outrage and curiosity fought for dominance on Tom Blake’s brow. True to his feline nature, curiosity won out. He followed Peahen up to the VIP room, past Raven’s podium, and back to Catwoman’s table along the back wall. An empty chair sat across from her. In front of it, a glass of his preferred rye and soda.
Catman sat, touched the rim of the glass as if it contained hemlock, and then turned an equally suspicious eye on the woman herself.
“Well?” he asked belligerently.
“Recognize this?” Catwoman said, sliding a photo across the table.
He studied the picture. It was a very expensive-looking bracelet.
“It’s green,” he said simply.
“Men,” Catwoman muttered, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “Well, at least we know you’re not color blind. It’s Russian. A gift from Prince Feliks to Princess Zinaida on their 20th wedding anniversary, or something like that. Emerald enamel leaves, 24-karat gold, and seed pearl centers. Worth maybe a quarter of a million.”
“Nice. What’s it have to do with cats?”
“It’s in the Gotham Museum of Art on the other side of the wall from the Egyptian gallery with the big gold Sekhmet, where you were playing cat and mouse with Batgirl last night. Since you obviously know your way around there, you could go in and get it tonight. Everybody else needs a few days to stake it out, map out the space and the alarm systems, time the guards’ patrols, and make a plan.”
“Rush order?” Catman asked.
“Something like that. Hammer and Sickle want it for a prop in a larger enterprise.”
“Why can’t you take it yourself?”
“Because there’s a limit to the number of places I can be at one time, Blake, and I have other plans tonight.”
The plans themselves were not flawed. Lex Luthor had been brutal in his assessment of his own stratagems and, where he was at fault, he was prepared to admit it. He had made mistakes, certainly. He did not shrink from that reality. But those mistakes were not in the planning.
The plans themselves were sound. It was in the execution where he faltered, more often than not because he entrusted a vital function to persons who were not reliable. Whether it was someone like Ra’s al Ghul or his old associates in the Injustice Gang or Secret Society, there was always someone pursuing their own agenda, either as an individual bid for power or following some psychopathic whim. That would not occur this time.
T. O. Morrow had been much more receptive to the appeal than Catwoman had. He agreed instantly to provide the Superman robot and to unleash it on Metropolis on command. Catwoman, despite virtually the same flattering testimonial about her expertise and sanity making her an ideal candidate for Luthor’s operation, wanted time to think it over. This, Luthor imagined, was a function of her life experience and not a flaw in his delivery. She didn’t respond to his appeal with instant agreement the way Morrow did because she was used to compliments. Women with a pleasing appearance generally were, whereas T. O. Morrow, one supposed, never heard a flattering word from anyone who wasn’t trying to sell him something.
Catman left Vault exuding equal parts satisfaction and revulsion, the kind of contradiction only a true cat can pull off. A few hours later, he returned with the coveted bracelet… and a second shadow.
The shadow didn’t follow him inside the nightclub. Instead, it went around to the fire escape on the far side of the building and entered through the room that had once been Harvey Dent’s kitchen. It bypassed the bar and went into the great empty chamber that had once been the theatre itself. From there, it swung through the cover of blacker shadows until it reached the balcony, where it climbed silently over the edge into the VIP room.
It stalked up to Catwoman’s table, tapped an orange and yellow-caped shoulder rhythmically, and, as Catman turned—Batgirl punched him fiercely in the nose.
Two Ghost Dragons sprung to their feet at the sudden excitement, but they sat back down as soon as Catwoman’s attack leopard roared. Catwoman herself merely shrugged, like it was a cost of doing business, while Batgirl twisted Tom Blake’s arm around his back and forced his face down over the table, until his fist opened and the bracelet dropped to the floor. She let him fall back into his chair, while the leopard—which was now two leopards—closed in on her from both sides. She looked fiercely from Catwoman to the closest leopard to the other leopard and back to Catwoman.
“Bring her to the poker room,” Catwoman ordered.
The leopards nudged her several times with their noses until the girl finally moved, walking with dignity through the tables to the door, then down the short hallway and into a small room. The leopards left her there and, a few minutes later, Catwoman entered.
“Blake was finally good for something,” she smiled, locking the door. “This room is completely eavesdrop-proof, even Superman can’t listen in. So finally, we can have our talk in peace.”
So the plans were never flawed. The personnel, this time, were intelligent, capable, and resourceful enough to do exactly what was required without the extra “Must-Kill-Bat” baggage. That left the Alpha-Omega, the great goal at the end of his journey and the driving force propelling him towards it.
Obliteration of the demigod tyranny was no longer an end in itself. He still wanted to liberate mankind from the super lie, still wanted to establish the Humanist State once and for all, where Man would be his own savior, where Innovation was the means by which he would triumph over any adversity. In the words of the one ad campaign he would never run, but whose author he promoted all the same: YOUR CHILDREN DESERVE TO BE SAVED BY RESCUE SQUADS WEARING LEXCORP JETPACKS.
It was still a dream, yes, but it was no longer the only dream. It was now the means to a greater purpose: revenge on The Bat and The Alien. He would avenge his shattered presidency, and, at the same time, liberate mankind from the superpowered menace and preempt future opposition in his endeavors.
That is what brought him back from oblivion. That was a dream worth living for.
Catwoman’s new lair was close enough to Vault that she could have come and gone over rooftops instead of taking her Catmobile. But since the whole point of hanging out at Vault was to be conspicuous, she used the car. It was a flashy way to announce: “the Cat has left the building,” “the Cat is on the move,” and “the Cat is now at this location.”
Reaching the lair, she removed her glove, let the scanner read her fingerprint, and went inside… to find Superman sitting on her couch.
“Thank you for not having k-metal lasers or lead-lined walls,” he said mildly.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Spitcurl, but yours isn’t the cape I want to see on that couch waiting for me after a long night of Bad Kitty.”
She made a clawing motion, Clark blushed, and Selina was satisfied. She removed her remaining glove and cowl.
“It won’t be long now,” he assured her. “We located the island Morrow was using. There’s no question he made the bot there. Bruce will be back as soon as he finishes up. Tomorrow afternoon at the latest.”
“And in the meantime, he’s got you checking up on me every few hours.”
“It’s easier for me to zip back and forth.”
“That’s not what I meant. I’m a big girl. I don’t need ‘checked on,’ I don’t need protecting, and I don’t need a guardian angel in a cape to—”
“Neither of us is too happy that you went to meet Luthor alone,” Superman said gravely.
“I work alone, Clark. I always have. I’m not new at this, remember? I’ve been playing this game for a very long time. I do my own thing, I do it very well, and I do it alone.”
“Well you’re stuck with company this time. Apart from everything else, I could never look Bruce in the eye again if I let you go to Luthor a second time without backup.”
“You do realize that you’re the one he’s paranoid about, right? You’re the one he’s going to be prepared for, even though there’s no earthly reason for you to be in Gotham.”
“I’ll keep a safe distance. I’ll stay above the atmosphere if I have to, but I am keeping an eye on this meeting.”
“Overprotective jackass,” Selina grumbled.
Clark smiled. Bruce had told him that if Selina ever called him a jackass to his face, it meant she’d accepted him into the pride.
Well, Morrow’s island was lost, that was inevitable. His robot had served its purpose, and since the man himself was safely relocated to Bangkok well before the heroes discovered his island workshop, there was nothing to tie Luthor to the episode. His nemeses would remain ignorant of their true enemy until it was too late.
This time was different. Already it was different, already the choices he was making were paying off. Morrow was reliable. He hadn’t remained on his island like some crazed Bond villain, expecting to trap the heroes in a shark tank or some such nonsense. He did as he was told, and when discovery was inevitable, he bugged out. Granted, letting Morrow know that a generous allowance would be waiting to build himself a new lab as soon as he vacated the island may have had something to do with it, but such expenditures were necessary to keep skilled associates practicing their skills on his behalf. If there was one thing that running two successful Presidential campaigns had taught him, it was that thrift doesn’t pay. Money can be easily replaced. Minimizing your personal exposure must be the priority.
Luthor checked his wristwatch. It was almost time, but he had a few minutes yet to review the contingency timetables before Catwoman arrived. If only she could have provided a reasonable estimate of her prep time at their last meeting, but she refused to even guess without knowing the targets. It was the double-edged sword of sane allies again. A typical villainous cohort would have thumped his chest and cried “two hours tops, Lexie, and we’ll be dining on chilled Lanterns’ brains, tastefully served inside their severed heads, with a side of Flash liver sautéed in a nice chianti.” While he didn’t want that kind of irrational arrogance any more than irrational bloodlust, he wouldn’t have said no to a guess. Even Alan Greenspan would offer an educated guess when Luthor asked. But Catwoman? Nothing. Not a hint until she knew the targets. Whether it was cool professionalism, willful stubbornness, or a sly attempt to make him reveal the targets before he was ready, she was quite intractable. So there was a question mark between his present position and acquiring the plans, and then three tiers of question marks between seeing the plans and launching the ultimate attack. He simply couldn’t know how he wanted to proceed until he saw exactly what the plans were.
He glanced at a map on the wall and furrowed his brow as his eye traced the southern border of Bangkok.
It really was an unprecedented risk, sending out that SuperBot so soon. In earlier days, he would not have dreamed of beginning an operation with four question marks remaining on the timeline.
That was then. Now, he understood the genius of keeping the end game open-ended. How many of his previous plans had been thwarted because one of his enemies—usually that damnable Bat—had figured out the plan before it was finished? Granted, it was usually one of his associates revealing too much, either out of fear or hubris, that brought unwanted attention to his activities. He’d often forgotten that these associates were not intelligent, trained businessmen like himself but overgrown children prone to tantrums and self-delusions.
In those earlier days, there was so much effort involved in attempting to contain a barrel of crazy; a third of his time constantly focused on prevention, a third on damage control, and a third wrangling the likes of Joker or Felix Faust—just so his plan could come to fruition! It left him precious little time or mental energy to adapt or improvise as things went along.
But now… sane allies. It really was a luxury he’d denied himself too long.
Batman returned, as expected, while Catwoman was meeting with Luthor—and while Superman watched from above. This time, the Hummer brought her to the Gotham Yacht Club. A motor launch was waiting that sped her out to a chartered yacht. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” she joked as she stepped on deck… and that was the last thing Superman could hear.
..::It’s just like his office at LexCorp,::.. he reported over the comlink. ..::It’s like he walks around inside a circle of auditory lead.::..
“As expected,” Batman graveled. “We’ll have to wait until she gets back.”
While they waited, he ran an update and diagnostic on the Gotham business directories in preparation for the searches to come once they knew Luthor’s targets. The one thing he was reasonably sure of was that they would not include WayneTech or any other known Wayne Enterprises holdings. Catwoman was known to be Selina Kyle, Selina was known to be living with Bruce Wayne. So Wayne companies were out of the question, except for those few owned through so many shields and holding companies that even Luthor couldn’t trace their connection to Bruce Wayne. Of those, only one manufactured anything used by the Justice League. Try as he might, Bruce couldn’t see any way that Luthor could use anything from Malinche Tortillas, Inc. to his advantage.
The diagnostics were just completing their final cycle when Superman flew in through the Batmobile entrance. He said that Catwoman was safely off the yacht. He’d followed her car across the bridge into Bristol and then sprinted ahead so she wouldn’t know he was being an “overprotective jackass.”
Batman’s lip twitched.
“You got the J-word, congratulations. But she will know.”
A few minutes later, Alfred arrived with steaming pots of coffee, cocoa, and hot cider. He said Miss Selina had just called from her car to say that Superman must be chilled after spending so much time in the brisk air over the river, and that was undoubtedly why he raced ahead to get warm. She told Alfred to bring him something hot to drink as soon as he arrived in the cave and, being uncertain as to Superman’s preferences, Alfred had brought a selection of warming beverages.
It would be Batgirl’s fourth trip into the art museum in 24 hours, and the third using an unconventional entrance. Cassie felt she was really getting the hang of it: the entry, evading the motion sensors and the guards was almost routine now.
Actually opening the display case, that would be something new, but she wanted to try. She had begged Selina to let her return the bracelet herself. She had seen how Catman bypassed the alarm and opened the case, and she was sure she could do it. Selina was skeptical—not of Cassie, she said, but of Blake’s methods. So she talked Cassie through “a better way—meow.”
Cassie couldn’t see herself ever meowing that way, but she liked Catwoman’s methods. Her way of moving through the galleries was more fluid, more than those Cassie learned from either her father or Batman. The concealment techniques were on par, not superior but no worse. And her way of defeating the pressure alarms was inspired. So quick compared to Catman’s technique and, if the case hadn’t been opened earlier, Catwoman’s method would have been completely invisible.
Cassie replaced the bracelet, closed the case and… knew she should go home. The mission was accomplished and she should leave the premises immediately. But she really wanted to practice the new stealth techniques a little more. It wouldn’t be dawn for hours yet. She could try another gallery or two.
Selina didn’t waste time on pleasantries when she got to the cave. She gave a quick overview of the yacht (Typical Luthor: private chef, superb lobster, lead panels everywhere, jammers to block dolphin sonar. Yes, that meant either he was afraid of Aquaman or he just liked being mean to dolphins.) She gave a quick overview of the conversation (“If the past has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t take down the Justice League by matching Force for Force. It takes small, calculated strikes that undermine and dismantle from within, and those strikes must be performed perfectly, which is why I’ve sought out the best.” Yes, it was transparent flattery. Everybody did that the first time they hired her, even Aquaman had—and no, she didn’t think that had anything to do with the dolphins.) Finally, she gave a quick rundown of the targets, and that’s… when it got scary.
Batman looked at Superman.
Superman looked at Batman.
Batman rubbed his chin while Superman touched the bridge of his nose.
Superman started to speak, then shook his head dismissively. Batman glared at the edge of a stalactite and grunted.
“Okay. Look, boys, if what you’re after in this world is validation of your bad girl identity after a marathon fuck-over by a sleazy tabloid, then cooking up something with Lex Luthor that leaves Batman and Superman speechless is the motherlode. And I’m sure I’d be enjoying it a lot more if I knew what the hell it is. What’s so special about this Holce Concepts, Allman-Freely, and WraitheMatCo, that Luthor being after their files turns you two into the World’s Palest?”
Bruce moistened his lip thoughtfully before answering. Superman just shook his head in a resigned “I knew it” fashion.
“Holce is an architect,” Bruce said finally. “Allman-Freely is an engineering firm. And WraitheMatCo manufactures ultra-light materials used for various purposes in space stations and satellites, facilities like the Watchtower.”
“So what do they add up to?” Selina asked. “What did you have Holce design that Allman-Freely built with the stuff Wraithe-whatever makes?”
“He couldn’t know, Bruce,” Superman said sharply. “He’s after something else, maybe the old transporters. Or he doesn’t know what he’s after. He just knows these companies did something for us. Although how he could have found that out is another mystery.”
“Simple. He’s building a new base himself. He’s out of office, out of business. So he started taking bids for some facility of his own… and he found these firms.”
“It’s not like we let them advertise that they’ve worked for us,” Superman complained.
“They don’t have to. A bid looks different when a company has done similar work before. It’s submitted faster, and in a different kind of detail. If you know what you’re looking for, you can tell.”
“That’s very interesting,” Selina interjected, “but what is it?”
“It’s better you don’t know, just in case Luthor employs a telepath at any point.”
“She’ll know when she sees the plans, Bruce.”
“She isn’t going to. Nobody is. We’ll give Luthor a decoy, something of our choosing and then—”
“And then I’ll have eight,” Selina interrupted. “I don’t like this plan.”
“Whatever we give him will seem legitimate,” Batman assured her. “He won’t have any reason to suspect you didn’t bring him what he asked for.”
Selina looked from one hero to the other, mentally reviewed the overprotective jackass sightings throughout the day, figured in that she probably only spotted him one time in three, and concluded that she was probably in safe hands.
“Okay, I’m in,” she purred as if bestowing a great feline bounty, “How much time will you need to put this decoy together?”
“Selina, you surprise me,” Superman grinned. “He already has one. Don’t you, Bruce?”
Selina turned expectantly, but Batman grimaced.
“Unfortunately no, I never foresaw this. But I may be able to adapt something from another protocol.”
To be continued…