“Cassie, cars do not have body language.”
It sounded better in Dick’s ears than “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” but it meant pretty much the same thing. Bruce needed experienced crimefighters in the vicinity of Watermill Lodge; he understood that. Cassie needed to learn how to drive; he understood that. He didn’t think combining the two into his riding up to Watermill Lodge with Cassie while she drove the car was such a hot idea. And he especially didn’t think “killing two birds with one stone” was the most tasteful way to phrase it, no matter how much pain Bruce was in or how frustrated he was stuck in that armchair.
Dick had faced enough life-threatening dangers as Robin, and far too often the villain of the hour had pulled that “killing two birds” quip. It wasn’t funny the first time, but by the sixteenth, he had really had enough. Time had passed, sure, but he would always dislike the phrase. Killing birds was bad enough on its own…
“Cassie, that was our exit.”
…but used in conjunction with the girl who could snap your neck without ever losing the 10-2 steering position…
..::Can I come home now?::.. Selina asked plaintively.
Bruce heard Dick’s words echo in his mind’s ear: She’s the best at what she does, not at what we do. Robin or Nightwing would be locked into the investigative mindset by now. They would know instinctively what lay ahead, that the investigation was only beginning, and how it needed to proceed. But Selina… Selina was still in girlfriend-houseguest mode. Catwoman had done what he’d asked of her, but as soon as the task was complete, she was Selina again, thinking about coming home to him. Thinking about extracting herself from an unpleasant situation rather than digging in until she’d found out what had happened.
She’s the best at what she does, not at what we do.
She wouldn’t have left fingerprints, would she? Girlfriend-houseguest mode or not, it was Catwoman who opened the safe, and Catwoman must take all necessary precautions in her realm just as he did in his. After a while, it became as natural as breathing…
“No, you can’t come back yet,” the final, unchallengeable voice of the Bat decreed. “There’s too much we still need to find out, starting with that bottle that was taken. This is a murder, Catwoman, and since I can’t be there to investigate, you have to be my eyes and ears.”
She is the best at what she does, the same unassailable Bat-voice repeated in Bruce’s thoughts. Catwoman does not simply forget herself and leave fingerprints on someone’s safe or jewelry. If this had happened years ago, when Batman and Catwoman were what we used to be, wouldn’t I know that? If it was Batman investigating a suspicious death at Watermill Lodge and I found Catwoman’s fingerprints inside the safe, wouldn’t I know that it was a frame up? Wouldn’t I be so certain that I would immediately eliminate that fingerprint as a Holmesian impossibility and draw the obvious conclusion that remained: since Catwoman does not go around leaving fingerprints, this one must have been planted in order to implicate her in the crime.
..::Is this what you were expecting?::..
“I’m sorry?” he murmured, still lost in thought.
..::When you sent me here, is this what you thought was going to happen?!::..
..::I didn't think it would be this big, ::. Bruce answered. ..::but something…::.
He was still holding out on me, and I couldn’t fathom why. I asked again for some kind of explanation: why he’d sent me to Watermill in the first place, what he knew, what he was expecting, something.
Something more than “go to the bedroom and don’t be seen.”
What do I get in reply? “No, not yet.”
“No, not yet. First go to…”
I was getting really fed up. He said reinforcements were on the way. Dick would be following the actual body, and Cassie was bringing me a “bat-pack” (growl) with a miniature camera and a few other gadgets, and then she would “be on hand” for whatever either Dick or I needed. But in the meantime, I had to 1) check the wastebaskets in Noel’s bedroom and bathroom for some clue as to what that bottle was that I’d seen William take away, and 2) if and when that search came up empty, I was to proceed to William’s and Fiona’s rooms and conduct similar searches.
If all three searches were unproductive, “it will have to be the household garbage,” he said. (Needless to say, it will also have to be forty new acres for the Catitat made possible by a generous grant from the Wayne Foundation.)
“Cassie, I swear to God, cars do not have body language.”
“Do. Green Corolla behind us nervous because semi behind it. If edge up any further, would be in our back seat.”
“Cassie… Cassie, I know I said give him some space but—Cassie, Cassie, speed limits are not suggestions, Cassie. You want to maybe—I think that was the toll plaza where we turned around last time. You… you can't just anticipate what they're going to do by watching for ‘tells,’ okay? You have to be prepared for anything the red Honda might do when it reaches the intersection…”
“Honda no have tells; driver do. Driver control Honda. Honda drift left when he look over shoulder to merge.”
“Like we should have. We’re going the wrong way.”
“We’re supposed to be going east.”
“No, we’re not. We need to turn around.”
“Sun rise in east.”
“Cassie, it’s noon! How does that even—MEN IN JUMPSUITS! Cass, you see those tall, orange ‘traffic cones’ with arms and legs whizzing past the windows? That would be a clean up crew picking up litter. And they may be convicts, but we don’t want to kill them, so you think maybe… Bridgeport? That sign said Bridgeport. Cassie, we missed the turn again.”
“See. Bridgeport. Bridgeport is east. Told you.”
..:: Well, there was nothing in Noel’s room to shed any light on that bottle,::.. Selina reported.
Bruce interlaced his fingers thoughtfully, ignoring Alfred’s approach and the tray being laid on the table beside him. He glanced instead at the mantle clock. She’d had ample time to check more than one room, possibly all three and the household garbage as well.
“But you did find something,” he declared, stating his guess as a certainty.
..:: And how. First, there’s William’s room. He doesn’t have one. He’s not a live in. I just talked to the maid, and she says he’s not even a permanent member of the staff. He’s an actor/waiter from Gotham that they hire for things like the formal dinner.::..
“Rent-a-waiter work,” Bruce said, sensing palpable waves of disapproval from Alfred at this horrific notion.
..:: Right, but they weren’t going to need him for the garden party, the clam bake, or the barbecue; those are all pretty informal. So William was done. The staff all thought he’d gone back to Gotham last night. He was never meant to spend the night here. Don’t think I need to be the world’s greatest detective to know the big looming question there is “why did he?” Why was he still in the house first thing this morning when the body was found?::..
“And the answer?”
..:: Don’t know yet. But I did find Fiona’s room, and in Fiona’s room, I found this paper packet tucked underneath the lining of a drawer. It’s like those envelopes they use for loose tea, and there’s an indentation in the paper like it held a bottle. The size and shape look exactly right for the one I saw William take away from Noel’s room.::..
“Describe it,” Bruce ordered.
..:: I can do better, I took a picture with my phone. Sending it now. There’s Chinese lettering on it. I think Mandarin, but I’m not really sure. I know it doesn’t say “Beijing International Airport” “Grand Hyatt” “taxi” “museum” “imperial tombs” or “roasted duck” which is pretty much all my Chinese is good for.::..
Somewhere in the recesses of Batman’s memory, he placed a checkmark next to his never (until now) confirmed theory of Catwoman’s role in the theft of the Qing Lion. Then he fished out his cell phone and scrutinized the picture Selina sent.
“It’s says ‘root,’” he said, squinting at the first character. “A root of something I don’t recognize,” he added, giving up on the second symbol. “A root of something grown on Mt. Chang Bai… I think.”
..:: I’ll buy that. There’s a faint herbal smell, like the back room of that crazy Miriam Nash’s magic shop.::..
“The picture is a start,” he said, mentally growling at Selina’s failure to mention the smell initially, and at the unwanted intrusion of magical subjects, “but we’ll need the original. If Cassie is going to go through Chinatown and ask questions without arousing suspicion, she'll need the actual paper, not a picture on a cell phone.”
..::Cassie will? Thank God, does that mean I’m done? ::..
“No, no it doesn’t. Your next set of tasks is to 1) find out what Daniel Eagan does for a living. 2—”
..::Isn’t that more of a job for Oracle? ::..
“No. I don’t care what he puts on his tax return. I want to hear what the others there have to say about him. 2) Find out why William was still in the house…”
He already had a theory about that, which he considered so obvious that he was astonished Selina hadn’t already guessed it. But he wanted his hunch confirmed without tainting her objectivity, and more importantly, without doing anything to make her question her detective skills. She had put forth the mystery of William remaining in the house as if it was an important element of the investigation. Dismissing her reasoning would only discourage her while contributing nothing to the case.
..:: 1) Find out what˜˜’˜Daniel Eagan˜˜’˜does for a living.::..
I’d been hearing a funny kind of static on the line as he was talking.
..:: 2) Find out why˜˜’˜William was still in the˜˜’˜house.::..
My first thought was wiretaps or some kind of crazy cell signal interceptors, but then I remembered I was talking over the OraCom. Even Cyborg can’t break through the encryptions Bruce and Barbara have built into this thing. Besides which, it didn’t really sound like static. It sounded more like…
..:: 3) ˜˜’˜Find out what Nicola˜˜’˜wanted with Oliver last night˜˜’˜˜˜’˜.::..
“Bruce, are you eating something?”
There was this long silence that only those who have actually seen him in the mask can really pick up on. With anybody else, silence over the telephone (or in this case, the OraCom) all sounds alike. But with Bruce, there’s the regular silence that is just him not saying anything, and there is the silence where the sheer concentration of malice, disapproval, and Battitude sucks in all sound, light, and thought in a six-foot radius, like a black hole of pure, mainline Batman.
This was one of those silences. I’m sure it was only a second, but it felt like a week. Then:
..::Alfred has me on a… kind of… regimented schedule. Meals and exercise.::..
Dick and Barbara’s simple gesture in sending over a few movies had made a profound impression on Alfred. It wasn’t the act itself, but the thought behind it that struck him. Fixing the mistakes of the past. Alfred too had made serious errors of judgment when Bruce was injured by Bane. His natural compassion compounded by Bruce’s pain and despair, along with certain feelings of guilt over the qualms he had always expressed about Batman’s activities, all led him to the great error. He allowed the servant to overrule the medic. He had left too much up to Bruce and his brooding nincompoopery, and look where it got them.
This present injury was not nearly as severe, nor, thank God, was it permanent. But the short-term result so far as Alfred’s day-to-day duties (and Bruce’s day-to-day routine) was not that dissimilar. It was an opportunity to redeem himself for the mistakes of the past. A wise man knew not to let such opportunities pass, for a wise man knew The Universe might not be so generous next time.
So, as soon as Dick had left, Alfred had spoken to Master Bruce most firmly: given the extremely active nature of Bruce’s daily life, a sudden drop-off into immobility, coupled with an improper diet and erratic eating schedule, was downright dangerous.
“If you are serious about healing this injury,” he had declared, “then you need to follow a strict schedule. You will eat three meals a day, at set times, and perform one hour of physical therapy every day at 2PM. No deviations, no excuses.”
..::Oh, good,::.. Selina replied.
Bruce couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t exactly expected pity, but some acknowledgement of his situation would have been welcome. He was BATMAN, and he was sitting there helpless while his butler managed him:
“Master Bruce. You have asked me to help you in your recovery, and I am taking that as seriously as anything you have done in your own… pursuits. If you want to heal, you will do this my way. You have deferred to my medical judgment before. Please understand that this is the only way to make you better.”
“Oh, good,” she says. Impossible woman.
..:: Hey, I was just thinking, if “F” from the note is Fiona, maybe it was from William and the stuff in the packet is what the dollar sign is for.::..
Bruce’s thoughts snapped immediately from dissatisfaction with his personal circumstances back to the case.
“If the ‘F’ is Fiona…” he mused, his head tilted upward and to the right as if the idea had a physical form and was floating there above him, rotating slowly so he could examine each of its many facets in turn. “Then someone like William would be a more likely sender than, say, Oliver or Noel. You don’t often send notes for clandestine meetings with someone you live with and see every day…
“On the other hand, whatever was being bought and sold probably had nothing to do with the contents of the paper packet. The note was simply left where anyone could find it, as if it was of no importance. But the packet was hidden in the lining of a drawer. A contradiction if the boathouse meeting was to sell the packet…
“Then again, the note was sent the night before. Maybe it was unimportant then. The note’s recipient doesn’t care, he or she reads it, throws it away, goes to the boathouse and makes the buy. It’s only in the morning when a body is discovered that they feel they have to hide it. In which case, either it’s Fiona’s and she hides it in her own room as best she can, or it was someone else hiding it in Fiona’s room… either to frame her, if they expected it to be discovered, not altogether impossible with Catwoman staying in the house… or they hid it there simply because it’s safer than stashing it among their own things…”
..::Bruce, uh, do I have to be here for this? Because I’m sort of hiding in a tree right now.::..
“Hm? Did you say something?”
..:: Never mind. I’ll call you back.::..
“Blue Ford has to pee.”
“Okay, third time’s a charm. Cassie. Cars: no body language. And speeding up—”
“There! Look now! Blue Ford has to pee. Right foot jittering on gas pedal and keep look at mile signs. Is look for next exit…’
“And speeding up because the passenger said something that pissed you off is BAD.”
“Dick not know good music if bit him in ass. Is lucky has Babs to keep in line.”
“Cass, I am not going to debate who should control the radio, the man with greater musical and life experience and therefore better taste, or the girl who thinks the oldest Jonas Brother is cute and wants to hear Mandy again. I am simply going to tell you, from that same font of greater life experience, that Bruce reserves the right to veto, suspend, or revoke any state-issued license given to his sidekicks until he is personally satisfied with your performance. And if he doesn’t get the evidence he wants because we’re still lost in Massapequa, you’ll see menopause before you’re allowed to drive again.”
“See! Turn signal. Blue Ford go to pee.”
“Get off at the next exit and turn the car around.”
“I hope you’re happy, Alfred. Munching in Selina’s ear while she’s investigating a possible murder. She sets aside her principles about crimefighting in order to help me confirm and punish the taking of a human life, and what happens? She hears me chewing.”
“How very distressing that must have been for you, sir,” Alfred said dryly. “I know how the very mechanisms of Justice depend on maintaining the illusion that Batman does not chew.”
Bruce rolled his eyes, and Alfred collected the lunch tray.
“If one might indulge one’s curiosity, sir. One has overheard Miss Selina inquire more than once why you sent her to the gathering at Watermill Lodge, and one has yet to hear you answer her query.”
Bruce repositioned himself awkwardly in the chair, first holding his weight on his palms as he lifted himself up, and then stretching out his back. He winced in pain, but went on stretching, and then lowered himself again and stretched out his legs. Only then did he turn to Alfred directly and answer.
“A few weeks ago, Oliver Lyon tried to hire Batman,” he said solemnly. “He contacted Commissioner Muskelli through the Mayor’s office and requested a meeting. His theory was that all the great detectives were for hire: Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot... Of course Batman didn’t show, but Bruce Wayne ran into Oliver the next day at the Racquet Club and got the whole story. It seems that, many years ago, Oliver gave Noel a diamond necklace for their tenth anniversary, and he didn’t exactly go to Harry Winston…
“To tell you the truth, Bruce, I wasn’t planning on giving her a diamond at all,” Oliver said glibly. “You know the old chestnut: the more unfaithful the husband, the more spectacular the jewel collection. I certainly didn’t want to hit that nerve. I didn’t really know what I was going to do for our anniversary. I was thinking maybe a trip on the re-fashioned Orient Express. But then while I was traveling in San Francisco, I came across this necklace. The price was simply too good to be true for the size and quality of the stone.”
“Too good to be legitimate, you mean,” Bruce said as if he himself had faced that situation many times.
“Exactly. I made the obvious assumption, that the diamond was quite probably stolen. I believed that for years, but now I’ve come to suspect there is another, more sinister reason it was being sold so cheaply.”
Bruce raised a skeptical eyebrow, but Oliver nodded grimly.
“We were at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, having dinner, and Noel got up to powder her nose. As soon as she’d left the table, this extraordinary woman came up to me and said to beware, the shadow of Tsin had fallen on us, and we were marked by its darkness.
“Well, it was Hong Kong. You know how prevalent kidnapping is. I assumed this was a new type of kidnapping threat, an attempt to extort money without the bother of actually grabbing Noel. I brushed it off like all the rest of that nonsense one encounters over there. I never saw the woman again, at the hotel or anywhere else. But then, it was the next morning, I had gone down to the hotel’s business center to check my email, and just on a lark, I looked up this ‘shadow of Tsin.’ What did I see but a page full of Chinese writing I could make no sense out of, and a picture. It was a silk painting, seemed very old, and it was a portrait of a woman in some sort of courtly robes, wearing Noel’s diamond. The caption said ‘Star of Tsin’ in English, they were only English words on the whole page. So I searched for that and found the whole history… the legend of it, anyway.
“It seems that, like so many of the great gems of the world, the Star of Tsin traces back to an ancient temple where it marked the chakra of a god on some golden idol. One night, two thieves—two brothers, to be exact—broke into the temple to steal it. The elder brother was an experienced thief, but not the younger. It was his first time, and in his nervousness, he stumbled and woke one of the cats who were the guardians of the temple. The cat yowled, sounding the alarm, and the priests came running. As the would-be thieves fled, they knocked over an oil lamp, setting fire to the temple and burning it to the ground. From that moment, both the thieves and the diamond bear the curse of that sacrilege. It’s said that the brothers killed each other within a week, and all those who possess the stone will suffer likewise until it is returned to the gods.”
“Did you sneeze, Alfred?”
“No, sir. I pronounced that preposterous tale to be piffle.”
“That’s what I thought. And I agree. There are at least three other legends about cursed jewels that began as the eye of an idol, and are therefore cursed because they were removed from a sacred place/statue/temple. Don’t think I didn’t point that out to Oliver at the time. You may be surprised to learn that he also agreed. He says he dismissed the story immediately—even when he was unable to find that website ever again. He chalked it up to the peculiarities of the Chinese government’s control over their Internet, but he was careful to mention to me how he had been looking for information on that ‘Star of Tsin’ and has never been able to find anything about it.”
“I see, sir. So he ‘dismissed it’ as any sensible person should, but he continued to search.”
“Correct. And, as you might expect, he started drawing associations that he never would have absent any talk of a curse. Several times when Noel has worn the necklace, she’s had a brush with death. Their limousine was stuck in traffic for the opening night at the Met, and Noel didn’t want to miss being photographed on the red carpet. So they got out and walked the last six blocks, and she nearly got clipped by a cab.”
“There are those who would consider that a natural death in Gotham, sir,” Alfred remarked dryly.
“Another time, she wore the necklace to the Wayne Foundation’s Black and White Ball, and as they were driving home, lightning struck very near to the car. She wore it to the U.N. dinner honoring Superman, had a little too much to drink, and ‘Noel being Noel, obsessive about her weight, she was on the treadmill first thing the next morning as usual, despite the hangover, burning off all that champagne. Still dehydrated from the alcohol, she collapsed on her treadmill. Only chipped a tooth but could've broken her neck.’”
“At the risk of repeating myself, sir—”
“Yes, I know, piffle. Or as Selina might put it: ‘Pfft. Cursed diamonds went out with white gloves and pillbox hats.’ I’m not saying I believe any of this, Alfred. But we do have a body.”
“Indeed, sir. I would add too that there have been cases where what appeared to be a foolish superstition turned out to be a simple people’s only means to explain some phenomenon which did have a natural, scientific explanation.”
“You’re thinking of the jade dragon statue, whose owners always seemed to die before their time. Not from a curse, as it turned out, but from long-term exposure to low levels of radiation, since the statue wasn’t really made of jade at all, but a hybrid form of green kryptonite.”
“Yes, sir. It was of that episode I was thinking… Master Bruce, not to minimize the significance of Mrs. Lyon’s passing, but another aspect of the tale intrigues me. As Master Dick noted earlier, the Lyon name itself is suggestive, as is the presence of a cat in the curse legend. Surely, if someone with that surname had a diamond grand enough to be the object of a curse legend, isn’t it quite likely that Catwoman would be aware of it, and, well… How to put this delicately… Is it not quite likely, sir, that she would have made an attempt to acquire it back in her more felonious days?”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“Of course it is. It’s an absolute certainty. The curse is a fable. Oliver made it up because he wanted Batman involved but he didn’t want to say why. There are several possible reasons, ranging from mildly annoying to criminal.
“Option: it could be the social cache. ‘We're so wealthy and important, we need Batman to protect us.’
“Option: it could be some kind of a commercial enterprise to exploit Batman's name recognition, make some money from ‘the gimmick.’ Oliver is a publisher. He could be fabricating material to produce a Batman ‘locked room jewel theft’ mystery.
“Option: it could be a diversion for something else entirely. Although he better be planning to disappear afterwards, in that case. Because if Batman is tied up playing bodyguard at Watermill Lodge while Mr. Freeze is relieving Tiffany's of all their ice, then I’d know whose door to knock on the next day to get some answers, now wouldn’t I?”
“There is also the consideration, sir, that Mr. Lyon’s fortune very nearly equals your own. He would hardly need to supplement his income with payoffs from Mr. Freeze.”
“No, he wouldn’t do it for money, but where that kind of wealth is involved, blackmail is always a possibility. And then there is the most likely possibility: Oliver could have been genuinely worried about something that poses a threat to himself or his family, something that he didn’t want to reveal. If he’s into something shady and thinks his life is in danger, ‘Let’s have Batman around but not tell him why.’”
“A dubious strategy, sir. Surely if he was involved in something illegal, a private bodyguard would be preferable to Batman.”
“That depends on where he perceives the threat to be coming from, Alfred. He has the means to hire private security. If he’s seeking out Batman, we can assume it’s because he doesn’t think they’re up to the task.”
“Implying he is menaced by a foe you already have experience dealing with… But none of those possibilities address the original question, sir. Why not tell all of this to Miss Selina?”
“For the reason you already noted: she’s Catwoman. She’d know that Oliver Lyon never bought a famous diamond with a cat in its curse legend. She’d know immediately that he made up the story, and she might just think he made it up to bait Catwoman. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before: Eric Rothchild, Nathanial Severs, Steven Phelps, Joseph Beebe… Buying their wives jewelry with a cat angle and then publicizing that they’re going out of town, cancelling at the last minute but making sure the wife leaves anyway, and then sitting there by the bedroom safe waiting for her, like if they catch her in the act they’ll be able to… I had to save every one of them, Alfred. You do not want to know what that woman is like with men who try to bait her. I need her there at Watermill Lodge, but I need her to be objective.”
I was starting to feel Oliver Lyon was the only person in the house that wasn’t a total shit. The man’s wife had died. My instinct was to get the hell out of his way, let him make funeral arrangements, call friends and relatives, whatever… But no, I was sticking around like some kind of Lois Lane wannabe/professional snoop because Bruce needed “eyes and ears” on the premises. Fine. That’s my excuse. But what about the rest of them? Richard Flay, Daniel Eagan, and Nicola Dulch all seemed to regard the hostess’s death as a minor household snafu that a polite guest would pretend not to notice. Rick, Gracie, and Fiona, on the other hand, seemed downright chipper. They didn’t actually burst into song, they didn’t say they were planning to plop Noel in the ground as quickly as possible so they could all go and dance on her grave, but every one of them gave off this vibe as if their weekend had just improved tremendously.
At the Iceberg, I expect that kind of indifference, but at a place like Watermill Lodge… You know what, I take it back. At the Iceberg, I expect that kind of indifference about the life or death of strangers, but even Jonathan, Jervis, Pammy, and Oswald are going to register a blip if somebody they ate dinner with last night shows up dead this morning.
I had just tracked down Nicola, and we were sitting down with a pitcher of iced tea by the famous boathouse so I could do my Lois Lane impersonation one-on-one. But before I could get past the how sad it was preliminaries and get into the delicate question of why she was stalking Oliver last night, my cell phone rang.
It was Dick. Again. The third call since noon:
..:: Cassie feels we’re zeroing in on it. Was it a gas station or a post office where you turned onto Watermill Road?::..
“It was a general store called Briermere Market. How can you still be lost?”
There was a long-suffering sigh, like he used to give after Batman sent him to find some evidence.
..:: Well, for starters, we’re using celestial navigation in the middle of the day. You can’t actually see Venus at one o’clock in the afternoon any more than you can read body language on a 2001 Toyota Camry, but it turns out that you can see the Delta shuttle out of La Guardia and think it’s Venus. Frankly, Selina, it’s a miracle we’re not in Opal City at this point.::..
I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again…
..:: I’ll tell you this, if we'd just called Babs for the GPS instead of getting off the Ziegler Parkway and taking Exit 29 east to Aaronville, I don't think we would have wound up in Massapequa so many times.::..
I can’t believe this is the crack team that kept me from the Katz collection.
To be continued…