The Wayne family had erected their manor on the choicest lot on the vast property. The house was perfectly situated to look out over the burgeoning city across the river. In those days, the city didn’t glisten with artificial light as it did now, the Night-Gotham gradually coming into focus like a gleaming jewel as the sky around it darkened. It was a sight Batman seldom saw. He was usually in the cave by now, preparing for the night ahead, or sometimes he was in the city, arranging Bruce Wayne’s alibi through some public appearance with a beautiful but shallow bimbo.
Back then, at least. There were no bimbos since Selina. It was being in his room at sunset that reminded him of that earlier time. Those first weeks after the Bane injury, that was the only time in his life that he saw this particular view of the city at this time of day. As if the memories were linked, the pain in his back grew worse, just as it always did back then. This time of day, the dawn of night, when he should be in the cave getting into costume… The pain had always grown worse then, and it grew worse now. In his mind’s ear, Alfred suggested he take a pain pill and settle in for the night, and in his mind’s ear, he heard his venomous, snarling refusal. How badly he had treated Alfred back then.
He should never have sent Selina away. It was a mistake. She was the biggest difference in his life since that earlier time, and her presence alone would have warded off this flood of unwelcome memories. Her sudden absence made them all the sharper.
Once again, his inner-Alfred suggested a pain pill and sleep, and this time, he acquiesced. He settled on the bed and shut his eyes, willing the old memories to stay in their cages, and taking refuge, as he had back then, with a conjured Cat on a long ago rooftop. Once again, he had hesitated when he shouldn’t. She had made him hesitate, somehow, and he still couldn’t nail down exactly how she did it. Over and over again, that one woman—that one criminal—somehow managed to break his focus. To break it, play with it for a while like it was her own personal ball of yarn, and then hand back the broken pieces with that damnable “Aren’t I a naughty girl” grin. Once again, it led to his giving her an opening twice as long as a fighter of her skill needed, and once again, she had gotten away with her prize. Once again, he was left with that lingering scent in his nostrils: lavender and vanilla mingled with leather and musk, and a hint of tearose whenever her hair flitted past his face. Once again, he had to track that damnable cat thief back to her lair to try to recover stolen property rather than preventing the theft in the first place. Once again, typing those words into the logs: Catwoman. My enemy. My equal. Who brought a fire to my lips that Bruce Wayne’s bimbos never came close to ringing… ringing…
Bruce started, his eyes snapping open, instantly alert. Ringing. Selina’s ring.
He had to stretch to reach his phone, and pain shot like fire from his shoulder to his lower back, burning through the last wisps of sleep.
..:: Didn’t wake you, did I? I wanted to say goodnight. ::..
“No, no” Bruce lied, double-checking that the line had been secured before adding, “Bats are nocturnal. How’s the houseparty?”
..:: Woof. You’ve got me holed up with the cast of a Fellini film, Bruce. These people are seriously strange… ::..
Richard Flay was the only one of the houseguests I knew beyond “Hi, hello.” It was to be a weekend of parties and amusements, with loads of extra people expected for a garden party on Saturday, clam bake Saturday night, and a barbecue on Sunday. But Friday night was a formal dinner just for those of us staying at the house.
Nobody had a chance to talk much during the afternoon arrivals. The son and daughter, Rick and Fiona, went off to play tennis, while his fiancée, Gracie, went for a swim. For the rest of us, the afternoon was all about seeing to the luggage and settling into rooms. I’d taken the Lamborghini, and this good-looking young man who carried my bags couldn’t take his eyes off it. I think his hand actually trembled when he touched the door to get my suitcase. He lingered once he’d brought the bags to my room, and I knew he wanted to ask about it. I was patiently waiting for him to work up his courage, but he never got past his name (which was William) because Richard Flay kept popping in: he couldn’t find his way back to his room, he needed more towels, he needed help reaching a high shelf, and so on.
Alone at last, I figured I had time for a shower before I had to dress for dinner. Unfortunately, Watermill Lodge is no Wayne Manor, and it seems there’s an odd little acoustic quirk with the plumbing. Standing in the shower, I could hear conversation in the next room. No actual words, but the pitch and tone came through loud and clear. It was a man and a woman having a pretty nasty-sounding fight. I was going to ignore it, but then the word “whore” jumped out quite distinctly from the otherwise unintelligible garbling.
Bruce smiled at the psychological point. Everyone has particular sights, sounds, and patterns that they key into. No matter how diverse or jumbled the sensory landscape, certain words, written or spoken, will be noted. Given Selina’s miserable history with F. Miller and the Gotham Post, it wasn’t surprising that her psyche would key into that word over others.
“The man’s voice, or the woman’s?” he asked mildly.
..:: Woman’s, ::.. she answered.
Kitty’s curiosity was piqued, and I decided that if I wasn’t going to spend dinner playing Guess The Combatants, it would be best to skip the shower and hear no more. So I threw on the cocktail dress I’d brought for the occasion: a pale yellow silk, sleeveless but no cleavage, nothing too sexy for this crowd. I added some simple gold earrings, ran a brush through my hair, and went down to dinner early… And was immediately foiled by my own good intentions. Just I stepped into the hall, I saw the door to the next room over open and Rick come out. Male voice identified. Now feline curiosity really wanted to know who the woman was that he was fighting with, and whom she was calling a whore.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who got downstairs early. Oliver was there, and he offered me a tour of the house. He asked about Bruce, of course, said what a pain those squash injuries can be, and mentioned running into him last month at his health club, that kind of thing. He also said how relieved he was that I hadn’t worn some big piece of Wayne heirloom jewelry, because Noel was a little afraid about being outshone.
“I’m sure that sounds silly to you,” he said apologetically, “but Noel was a model, after all, and in her day she was called the most beautiful woman in the world. Now, she has a son old enough to be getting married. I’m sure she can be forgiven a few harmless vanities.”
I agreed, and when Noel came down to dinner, I made a point of complimenting her necklace.
“What was it?” Bruce interrupted.
..::What was what?::..
..::Oh, uh, white gold or platinum collar with a pinkish stone in the center, rose quartz or maybe pink tourmaline. ::..
The rest of the cocktail hour chitchat was taken up with introductions. The only person I didn’t know at all was Daniel Eagan: late 30s, bit of a southern accent, nice looking if a bit too “pretty” for my taste. He said he was a professional poker player, but he said it like it was a joke. He seemed to know everybody, but he didn’t seem to know anyone well. Just what his connection was to the family, why he was there or what he actually does for a living, I have no clue.
Dinner was pretty odd. It seems that Richard Flay’s friend, Nicola Dulch, had played a little visit to the seating chart. Nothing was said openly, but I heard a few whispers. Gracie was the guest of honor, no surprise there; it was her engagement to Rick that the whole weekend was celebrating. She was to be seated at Oliver’s right, and I had the second highest position on our host’s left—which was certainly no compliment to my social status, but to Bruce’s. If he was there, Bruce would have been seated in the opposite position at the other end of the table on Noel’s left, but seeing as he wasn’t, Nicola was asking if I could be booted down the chain a few places to let her have the seat next to Oliver. Noel didn’t care (and I certainly wouldn’t have minded if anyone had asked me), but Oliver evidently vetoed the idea. It made for a very strange prelude to a very strange meal.
..:: Cream of edamame soup, an artichoke, lobster themador, endive salad, and crème brulee, ::.. Selina volunteered, simply to head of any more questions about irrelevancies like Noel’s necklace.
Once again, Bruce grunted.
No butler, but there was a footman to do the serving. I heard Noel call him William and looked—sure enough, it was the same kid who bought up the luggage and couldn’t take his eyes off the Lamborghini. Richard Flay couldn’t take his eyes off William. Nicola kept her eyes on Oliver the way I used to track a pair of emeralds through a party. And all I can say about the crosscurrents between Rick, Fiona and Gracie is that I’ve sat in the drawing room between Eddie and Bruce trapped in their day-faces, politely chatting about opera when all they both wanted was to put on some masks, step outside, and beat the living hell out of each other.
After dinner, Richard Flay appropriated me for an in-depth discussion of the MoMA’s new exhibit (yet again, made possible by a generous grant from the Wayne Foundation), and I lost track of most of the others’ movements. But I’m fairly sure Nicola finally cornered Oliver. The pair of them seemed to drift off in the general direction of his study, and it seemed like they were both missing for about twenty minutes. I never did see when Oliver returned, but Richard noticed when Nicola got back, and that she was quite ashen. He speculated that either the lobster or something she just heard about long-term investments in Bear Sterns wasn’t settling very well.
He went off to talk to her, but I was only on my own for a second before Daniel Eagan appeared from nowhere. He gave off that vibe…
“What do you mean, ‘that vibe?’” Bruce hissed.
..:: Oh come on, Bruce. You know very well what I mean. I never had the pleasure of tangling with the Fop personally, but from what I’ve heard, ‘the vibe’ was your specialty. If I was interested, he was ready, willing, and eager. ::..
“And he knows you’re with me?” the menacing Bat-voice graveled.
..:: Technically, but I’m here alone, and I might be the sort that plays around.::..
“Anything else?” Bruce asked darkly.
..:: As a matter of fact, yes. Seeing as I’m a guest here and spending the next three days under the same roof with this guy, I opted for evasive maneuvers rather than clawing. Landed me in this little alcove behind a set of French doors, where I found this note. ‘F I have it. Bring the money.’ Boathouse 9. ::..
“Since there aren’t nine boathouses on the property, that presumably means 9 o’clock. Was it after nine when you found the note?”..:: Yeah, much. It was nearly eleven. I can still go out to the boathouse and poke around if you want. Not like I need my beauty rest. ::..
Bruce considered this, but decided against it.
“No, not worthwhile at this point. Is there anything else unusual about the note?”
..:: Unusual? Bruce, it’s a note. It wasn’t left at the Bat-Signal and it’s not asking the air-speed velocity of an African swallow. What qualifies as unusual? ::..
“The F,” Bruce sighed. “Does it have a period after it, like an initial?”
..::No, but the F is in the top left over the other words, like it’s being addressed to “F.” I think we can assume the initial is implied. ::..
“F. I have it. Bring the money. Boathouse 9,” he recited...::Actually, it’s ‘Bring’ and then a dollar sign. ‘the money’ was my interpret—::..
“Don’t,” Bruce barked. “Don’t interpret, don’t theorize, don’t think. Just give me the cold facts without any—”
.:: Bruce, are you ready to tell me what the hell I’m doing here? ::..
There was a long pause. Then, rather than answering, Bruce said:
“I miss you.”
There was a longer pause, and then…
..:: So, this is pretty important stuff, eh? You want me there with you, lying next to you right now, in our bed, running my fingertips over your chest, right over the emblem, right over the scar, purring you to sleep, but instead, you’ve got me here playing ‘lobster and lovenotes’ with the cast of a Fellini film. ::..
Bruce closed his eyes and expelled a long, shuddering breath.
Breaking his focus. Pawing it like her own, personal ball of yarn. Then handing it back in pieces and expecting him to pick up where he’d left off like nothing at all had happened… How very little had changed.
Wayne Manor would always be home to Dick Grayson. He didn’t call ahead and seldom bothered with the doorbell. But today, since his arms were full, he jostled boxes and pressed the button with his elbow—and then kicked himself for being so thoughtless. As soon as the door began to open, he started apologizing in a frenzied rush:
“Alfred, I am so sorry, I didn’t think. I just thought ‘hands full’ and it never even occurred to me… You must have so much extra work right now, what with Bruce being laid up and everything. And all I had to do was set down the boxes and get my key—”
“Master Dick,” Alfred beamed. “What a pleasure it is to welcome you home, young sir. Do come in. Here, let me help you with those parcels.”
Dick jostled his boxes again but felt obligated to repeat his apology when Alfred reached out to help.
“Oh no, please, I can manage. I already put you to enough trouble.”
“In ringing the doorbell, sir?”
Dick took a deep breath, and then explained:
“None of us did very well last time, Alfred—when Bruce got hurt, I mean. We let him push us away, and we never should have, no matter what he said. I know the weight of it all pretty much fell on you, and, well, Babs and I talked about it. If nothing else, this is a chance to make up for it a little. Babs went through all her favorite movies and picked out a bunch for Bruce to watch while he’s laid up. Otherwise, we figure he’ll probably just brood and read Dostoyevsky while Selina is gone. Or maybe back issues of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. But we’re worried about you, too. Must be a lot more work for you.”
Alfred could barely contain his emotion.
“Master Dick,” he said warmly, “there is no greater mark of character than to acknowledge the errors of one’s past, and then to go beyond simple acknowledgement or expressions of remorse, to actively making restitution. I am very proud of you, young sir.”
Dick swallowed and blushed profusely.
“Well, eh…” he floundered helplessly, and Alfred quickly returned to the original conversation:
“As you say, Master Dick, there is certainly some variance in the household routine, but the additional work upstairs is offset by the suspension of the master’s downstairs activities.”
“Ah. Well, I’m going to be down there each night myself. I figured it’s better if I work off Batman’s at-large list and use his routines to design a patrol route. Will that make any more work for you? Because I could always use the satellite cave under the Wayne Tower and—”
“Not at all, sir. Will you be changing into costume here?”
“Yeah, I guess. But don’t feel you need to do laundry or anything. I can always pick up a few days worth of clothes during the week and run them back home.”
Alfred’s glare expressed disapproval as vehement as his earlier approval.
“It is best if you leave those considerations to me, Master Dick. Nightwing should simply make use of the cave’s resources in whatever way you think best, and permit me to provide such support services as I deem necessary.”
“Yessir,” Dick said. He was seventeen again. Nightwing was years in the future, and he had just brought home a B-minus on his English test after Alfred spent so much time quizzing him on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Master Bruce is in his study,” Alfred said mildly, picking up one of the boxes. “I am sure he will find this selection of films most diverting.”
“Yes,” Dick said, with renewed confidence. “Babs has good instincts for that kind of thing… Oh, and Alfred, I like to start patrol a little earlier than Bruce. Could you maybe have a little snack ready for me around 8 o’clock or so. Grilled cheese and maybe some fruit?”
“Very good, sir,” Alfred said approvingly.
Bruce interlaced his fingers thoughtfully as Dick pulled DVD after DVD out of a cardboard box, consulted a slip from his pocket, and arranged them in little stacks on the desk.
“Looks like day three of your Babs-Flix marathon will be devoted to sizzling chemistry: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo. See what that ‘Bogey and Bacall’ thing was all about, I guess. The ways of the All-Seeing Oracle, they are mysterious.”
“Not that mysterious,” Bruce noted with a lip-twitch.
With Selina gone, he was alone as he had been after the Bane injury. “Sizzling chemistry” would remind him of the Cat and Bat as they had been, making him feel her absence more acutely. The next day she would return home, and he couldn’t help but contrast his life then and now.
“Here's something interesting,” Dick said, reading off his slip. “Wikipedia story Babs found on Lauren Bacall. They were doing her screen test, and she was nervous: only nineteen, big Hollywood studio, her first time before the cameras. So to minimize her quivering, she pressed her chin against her chest, and then she had to tilt her eyes upward to face the camera. Became known as ‘The Look,’ smouldering hot and her special trademark. Just goes to show how what you think is happening can be so far off from what’s really happening.”
“What I think is happening,” Bruce said ominously, “is Superman was off world to rescue his father and then traveled into the future to help the Legion. Flash, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter took turns covering his monitor duty, and he’s been paying them back for weeks taking over their shifts. He sits there, he’s got time on his hands, he gets bored, and he opens the Watchtower interface to the OraCom and starts chatting with Barbara. Intentionally or not, he taps into the inner matchmaker, and here we are.”
Dick started to object, when Alfred coughed from the doorway. He didn’t want to call Bruce “crazy paranoid” in front of Alfred, so Dick shifted his attention to the DVD case for Key Largo. Alfred came in with a telephone on a silver tray, announced that Miss Selina was calling from Watermill Lodge and that he had already secured the line. Dick took the DVD to the window as if he needed more light to read.
His maneuver to give Bruce a little privacy was wasted, for Bruce waved him back almost immediately and, after double-checking with Alfred that the line had been encrypted, he switched the phone to open speaker mode.
“Selina, say that again,” he ordered.
..:: Noel Lyon is dead,::.. came the crisp reply. ..:: She didn’t come down to breakfast this morning. Oliver sent the maid up to check on her, and… well, the commotion is still in progress. But the hostess is dead, so I’d expect the party to be breaking up ASAP. Except for the immediate family, and maybe that cousin of hers if she’s staying for the funeral. So I’ll be ho—::..
“Stop. Back up. You’re not going anywhere until we know more.”
“How did she die?” Dick mouthed silently, but Bruce shook his head dismissively. He had other priorities:
“Selina, go to Noel’s room. Stay inside the house if you possibly can, but do whatever you need to in order to get there without being seen.”
There was a pause.
“Do it!” Bruce barked.
Another pause, and then…
..:: I’ll call you back. ::..
Tense minutes passed. Alfred’s attention flickered around the study, the impulse to “tidy” providing an excuse to stay and hear more.
“I don’t get it,” Dick was saying. “Item one: ascertain the cause of death. ‘Cause if it’s nothing suspicious and this woman just keeled over from a heart attack or something, then sending Selina to snoop is—”
“The death is suspicious,” Bruce said tersely. “Anything happening around Oliver Lyon right now is suspicious. And time is the enemy. We’ll find out how Noel died soon enough, that isn’t going to change. But anything in that bedroom can—and no doubt will—change within the hour, and I need Selina there before it does.”
The three men stared at each other until the phone rang again.
“Selina?” Bruce barked.
..:: Uh, no. Not quite,::.. Barbara’s cool Oracle voice replied. ..:: I’ve got her on the OraCom. She said it’s easier than juggling the cell phone right now, and you would understand why. So turn it on. I’ve got her on channel four.::..
Bruce dropped his head into his hand and massaged his brow while Dick pulled his com unit from his breast pocket.
“Here we go,” he breathed, plugging it into the phone speaker. “Selina on the OraCom. Who knew she’d actually use it, eh Bruce?” He smiled, and Bruce glared. “Eh, okay, channel four,” he ended lamely.
..:: Hello? ::.. Selina whispered.
“We read you,” Bruce said formally. “Go on.”
..:: Uh, well, she’s laying here. ::..
“What’s the bed situation look like?” Bruce asked. “Does it look like she shares the room with her husband? Or separate bedrooms?”
“You can’t ask her that?” Dick hissed, smacking Bruce’s shoulder lightly in a flurry of indignation, and Bruce quickly muted the speaker before replying.
“She’s Catwoman, Dick. She’s not squeamish about poking through other people’s private things.”
..:: Separate bedrooms, ::.. the speaker announced in Selina’s hushed whisper. ..:: Bed and nightstands told the tale, but I checked the bathroom to confirm it. Definitely separate bedrooms.::..
“All right. Now check the safe,” Bruce said, releasing the mute button.
..:: … ::..
“There should be a fairly spectacular diamond in there.”
..:: … ::..
“A necklace, I believe.”
..:: … ::..
..:: You do understand that there’s a dead woman lying here at my feet, right? ::..
“You do understand it’s Batman telling you to break into a safe and paw someone else’s property?”
..:: … ::..
Dick stared openmouthed as Bruce scowled at the telephone, counting down from three with his fingers. Then:
..:: I’ll call you back. ::..
The safe was only a JSR mini with a digital lock, so it’s not like it took all my concentration. I had plenty of free braincells to focus on the fact that I had let Bruce send me into this crazy house as an agent of the Bat. I had plenty of free braincells to point out that I was practically stepping over a dead woman to open a safe simply because he said so… and plenty of others to remind me that (grunt) he was Batman. Batman directly and unambiguously telling me to open up someone else’s safe is quite a turn on and the one form of catnip this kitty can never pass by…
But I still hate following orders. He gets that tone that just assumes you’re going to do whatever he wants, and… well, that’s as far as I got when the pathetic little JRS digital gave up the fight and swung open to reveal its secrets.
..:: It’s a fake::..
“What do you mean it’s a fake?”
..:: Does ‘fake’ have some other meaning I’m not familiar with? Bruce, it’s a fake. She’s only got one necklace in here. It’s the one she wore to dinner last night.::..
“The one you said was a rose quartz?”
..:: Well, it’s not like I put it under a jeweler’s loop. I couldn’t get that close then, and a stone this size you don’t exactly assume ‘diamond.’ But I’m close now, and if it was real, yeah, totally with you: ‘fairly spectacular’ would be the mot juste. But it’s not real. It’s moi—shit, someone’s coming… ::..
The men listening in the study waited in silence for a moment, then Dick asked:
“Moissanite,” Bruce graveled. “A diamond substitute like cubic zirconium, but it wears better, maintaining its clarity and color in a way that CZ cannot. If it’s cut well, with a faceted girdle, its brilliance is indistinguishable from a real diamond.”
“Yeah, but these people don’t need to buy a fake, right? I mean, Lyon Publishing, they’re in your league.”
“That’s not the pertinent question,” Bruce said, his eyes locked on the com link. “Ask yourself what the true incongruity is with respect to that necklace?”
..:: Bruce? ::.. the speaker hissed. ..:: That footman came into the room just now. Y’know, William, the kid who carried my bags. He just snuck in here and was rummaging around Noel’s exercise machine. I think he took a bottle or something with him. ::..
..:: I’m on a ledge outside the window, Stud. I don’t have the best line of sight on— ::..
“You’re on a ledge?”
..:: Not a lot of options here. It’s not like I can fit in the vents. It was this or the closet… oh shit, here comes another one. ::..
Once again, the line went quiet. Dick knit his brow, and then pointed to the com link.
“Selina. She’s the incongruity. If someone named Lyon, as in ‘sounds like LION,’ had a ‘fairly spectacular’ diamond, then Catwoman should know about it. She certainly wouldn’t be assuming a stone that size must be rose quartz.”
“Correct,” Bruce nodded curtly.
Dick studied his mentor: he seemed grimly satisfied with Dick’s reasoning, and Dick couldn’t help but wonder if Bruce was even aware of the new variable this line of thought introduced.
“Do you think it was a good idea to make her put her fingerprints on it?”
“What?” Bruce said, the word coming out as a softly expelled breath as he looked up sharply.
“Her fingerprints, Bruce. I doubt she’s running around that house in costume. You make her go to a dead woman’s bedroom while the body is still warm, crack her safe and feel up her ‘fairly spectacular’ diamond?”
There was a long pause, and then…
“Selina is a professional. I’m sure she’s taken all necessary precautions.”
“She’s a pro at what she does, not at what we do. And she’s acting as your eyes and ears right now. I wouldn’t count on her viewing it as a Catwoman operation.”
“I’m sure she’s taken all necessary precautions,” Bruce repeated.
..:: Christ, you’ve got me in the loony bin here, Bruce. You’ve landed me in fucking Arkham, you know that?::..
“What?” Bruce and Dick said in unison.
..:: Get this, first that William kid comes in, fishes around the exercise machine and takes away a bottle of something. Then Gracie comes in. Y’know, the fiancée? She just snuck in and went around the whole damn room, looking behind every painting. ::..
“She’s looking for the safe,” Dick noted.
..:: Well, duh. That’s what people who just know wall safes from the movies think: gotta be hidden behind a big oil painting.::..
“And Noel’s is hidden where?” Bruce asked.
..:: Under the television. She’s got one of those TV cabinets disguised as an armoire. TV on top, DVD and a speaker underneath. Speaker is the safe.::..
“So this Gracie didn’t find it?” Dick asked.
..:: Nope. She didn’t get to finish looking. Oliver and Fiona came in with the undertaker. He took the body, and Oliver left with him. Fiona stayed behind. Take a wild flying guess what she did.::..
“Checked behind an oil painting for the safe?” Dick said.
“No,” Bruce shook his head. “She searched around the exercise machine, looking for something but not finding it. Because William the footman had already found it and taken it away.”
..:: It is seriously creepy how you do that, ::.. Selina noted.
“What she said,” Dick agreed.
To be continued…