Selina always admired the cat’s ability to try to jump from the end table to the mantel and miss, spilling a vase of water onto the sofa and raining rose petals on the carpet, knocking a Faberge egg into the wastebasket as it clawed thin air all the way down to an ungraceful landing on its furry rump... and then blithely lick a paw like that’s exactly what she planned from the beginning.
Admiring this quality as she did, it would have been hypocritical for Catwoman to stand on all her vehement objections to crimefighting as if looking forward to date night admitted some kind of mistake in her earlier thinking. For one thing, she wasn’t mistaken. She still found crimefighters limited, self-righteous, and pompous. And in every one of them except Bruce, she found those qualities unappealing. But she liked fighting crime with him, in moderation, and she had suited up in the bedroom and hurried down to the Batcave in the same spirit Nutmeg licked a paw after an ill-considered leap from the mantel.
“Meow-meow” she announced when she reached the main cavern. Then she looked around, confused. Bruce was in costume, but...
“Where’s the hologram map? No At Large list, no patrol route? You’re not running a fever or anything, are you?”
“No early patrol tonight. Possibly the late one will be deferred too. I have a... we have a special investigation.”
“Yum. Where are we going?”
Batman glared the way he used to when she made some proposition that tempted him and Psychobat felt the need to assert himself.
“Wayne Tower,” he graveled ominously. “Bruce Wayne’s office, the executive suites, board room, parking garage, then the penthouse and possibly the manor.”
It was Catwoman’s turn to stare. She had assumed it was the “yum” that brought on the bat glare. Now, her playful manner faded and she asked what had happened.
“For a few days now I’ve had the sense, on and off, that I was being watched. It was nothing definite at first. I don’t think I was consciously aware of it for the first day or two. But I trust my instincts—”
“So do I,” Selina interjected. Psychobat scowled at the needless cheerleading, and continued:
“I trust my instincts,” he repeated. “And even though I can’t be certain, I believe I evaded several attempts to corner me, simply by...”
“By trusting your instincts. Just unconsciously doing what you do.”
He grunted, and Selina went on speculating:
“But today there’s a twist. Something happened that turned up the heat under all these unconscious ‘Batman being Batman’ machinations that you do in the background without even noticing. Something happened that thrust them into the foreground where you do notice and cancel patrols.”
“Yes,” he breathed. “This afternoon when I left after the finance meeting. There was no one in the parking garage when I stepped out of the elevator.”
“That’s one,” Selina grinned.
“It’s not that unusual at that time of day. Bruce Wayne keeps his own hours; it wasn’t the end of the workday. But then, there was a catering van parked next to my car.”
“Yes. That’s two. It’s Lucius’s space, and he uses the car service most days, so it’s often empty. But a van is a closed vehicle, no one can see in the back, perfect cover for a getaway with a kidnap victim. And it’s parked next to my car. It also wasn’t a caterer we use, to my knowledge.”
“Not that a detail like that matters at this point,” Selina said impishly. “Because they’re already busted.”
Batman’s lip twitched.
“I know the sight lines and strategic strike points in that garage,” he graveled. “I knew where the point man had to be positioned, so as I walked to my car, I took out my phone. Called you to see if you’d like to meet for a drink.” he added needlessly.
“Brucie, darling, you’re a lifesaver,” Selina answered, playing along in a society drawl. “I’ve been shopping all afternoon, and if I don’t get a Waldorf martini to restore myself, I will simply die from the exertion.”
Batman looked horrified, as if he was witnessing a demonic possession.
“I didn’t say I called Bambi Ashton-Larraby,” he objected in Bruce’s voice. “I called you.”
“Sorry... Got carried away,” came the faux-chastened apology.
“I’m walking with the phone in my hand,” Batman resumed. “At the optimal point, I triggered a low frequency stun tone. It should have seemed to them like the noise was coming from the security camera they’d disabled, so that later, when they’re at home licking their wounds and trying to figure out what went wrong, they would think their own tampering with the camera was to blame.
“Matches, you idiot, you set up some kind of short or somethin’,” Selina said matter-of-factly, redeeming her earlier lapse with a shorthand confirmation that she understood his reasoning.
“The noise should have come from the camera,” Batman repeated. “Unfortunately, I haven’t perfected the directional masking in enclosed spaces yet.”
“Eat, drink, and be merry, Bruce, for God grades on a curve. It stopped them without you punching like a prizefighter, didn’t it?”
“If they don’t blame the security camera, there is always the chance they’ll realize Bruce Wayne triggered the sound with his cell phone, and why would he have such a device?”
“Uh, third richest man in the country,” Selina said, counting off on her fingers. “Owns a tech company, and likes gadgets. Don’t all three of those apply to you and have nothing to do with Batman?”
“It means I knew an attack was coming.”
“Aware of your surroundings and not as dumb as you look, that doesn’t mean you’re Batman either.”
“I would still be better if they thought it was the security camera.”
“It is also better that you didn’t get kidnapped.”
And she meowed.
“Well anyway, it’s date night and we’ll know more after we check out the Tower. Right, Handsome?”
“You realize we have no idea what we’re looking for,” he graveled.
“Of course. That’s the fun of it, right? Meow.”
Since Ra’s al Ghul encountered Batman, fighting the Dark Knight was Ubu’s most onerous duty. It was heresy to regret the call to serve DEMON, but if any Ubu was capable of that blasphemous thought, it was the announcement that The Detective had entered the compound which would trigger it.
It wasn’t the fighting; to die defending the Great One against a worthy foe was the greatest end a minion could hope for. Batman did decline to kill his enemies, which meant living on in humiliation after a defeat, but this was not what Ubu feared either. It was The Detective’s notorious guile. Only the Great One’s mighty intellect was keen enough to joust with The Detective. Yet Batman sometimes turned to involve others in the conversation, as if they were something more than ornaments in Ra’s al Ghul’s throne room. That inclusion never ended well for Ubu. He simply wasn’t clever enough to respond as the Great One would wish. Even without being pressed to speak, Ubu’s predecessor had apparently betrayed the Demon Head’s intentions simply by letting the Detective walk through a door! So it was that, in this puzzling age of heroes, the worst news an Ubu could hear was that Batman was expected in the compound.
In the centuries before the coming of The Detective, however, there was another announcement, a different announcement, most likely to lead a minion, even one of Ubu’s standing, into heretical regret that he had ever become a servant of Ra’s al Ghul. That announcement was the one before Ubu now:
The Demon’s Head was moving to another compound.
There are rules in the Gotham Underworld about attacking people Selina Kyle cares about. Theme criminals who know Catwoman personally (and have a nodding acquaintance with reality) soon learn that an attack on “Eddie” or “Harvey” is an invitation for razor sharp claws to come and pay a visit. Often, the tearing away of leaves, straw, or human flesh is said to be a means to an end, the end being the removal of lungs, kidneys, and other vital organs. Most rogues are fairly sure she’s kidding, however most rogues also remember that’s what Scarecrow thought when she threatened to set him on fire. Most rogues conclude that, while she’s probably kidding, it’s best not to find out.
When Selina Kyle began dating Bruce Wayne, nobody seriously thought Catwoman’s rules extended to him. As the months passed, after a dozen opportunities came and went for her to abscond with whatever Rembrandt, diamond, or WayneTech secrets she was after, a few of the savvier rogues placed a mental asterisk next to Bruce Wayne’s name, albeit in very light pencil. After Scarecrow targeted Wayne with a number of other CEOs in a fear gas-driven stock scheme, that asterisk was traced over in indelible ink.
It was therefore unlikely—possible of course, but unlikely—that they were dealing with a theme villain. That hypothesis was confirmed when Catwoman got the security camera open.
..::What the hell is this, a wire nut? Who disables a Mohkanson-7 with a wire nut?::..
She was on the OraCom, so she couldn’t see Batman’s face. Twenty feet away, safely inside an elevator shaft, he indulged in a lip-twitch.
“Someone who was trained on the R-4s,” he answered, retrieving another of the sensors they installed to know when an elevator was on route from the executive suite.
..::An R-4? So… we’re talking about an octogenarian. You were nearly attacked by somebody who remembers Pearl Harbor and voted for Roosevelt.::..
Once again, Batman indulged in a lip twitch as he crawled out of the elevator shaft with his prize.
“No, we’re talking about ex-military. Probably Fort Leonard.”
..:: Oh gee, I feel safe.::..
“Don’t worry, Kitten,” Batman said through the open air as he came up behind her, “Luthor’s one legitimate contribution as President: he retired the training practices at those bases that hadn’t exactly kept up with the times.”
“Well, we know something about our man, then. One of them at least is ex-military, maybe trained at Fort Leonard, pre-Luthor. It’s not much, but…”
“We may know more if he’s left a fingerprint inside this. It’s what they used to monitor the elevators to know when Bruce Wayne was on his way to the garage.”
“They got to the elevator shaft?” Catwoman said seriously.
“The executive elevators between the 40th and 77th floors, not the one from the penthouse.”
“Ah, okay then.”
Batman wasn’t sure if her relief was on his behalf, because Bruce Wayne’s private express elevator to his penthouse also connected to the satellite cave under the tower, or if it was professional pride, since Catwoman herself had been unable to beat that elevator’s security, despite thirty-seven attempts (that he knew of) since learning his identity.
She said she wanted to check the penthouse anyway. Shielded from the regular building security, it could appear to an outsider to be the best avenue to get at Wayne. It wasn’t the one they ultimately used, but Catwoman was certain they would have investigated it before trying anything as public as a parking garage. And that’s when they would slip up, she insisted. That’s when they would leave a fingerprint or some other clue, during those preliminary maneuvers watching him, not once they moved in to actually grab their target.
Batman understood her reasoning, but he wanted to wait. There were several areas in the business offices and elsewhere that he wanted to look into first.
“That’s fine, you go and I’ll catch up,” she said lightly.
Again, Batman scowled.
“How would you get up there?” he asked finally.
“Elevator. I live there, remember? My fingerprint works on the panel.”
She winked and his scowl deepened.
“Now Batman, you’re not jealous of Bruce Wayne are you?” she teased.
“I’d like to examine the elevator and shaft before it’s disturbed,” he graveled.
“Okay, I’ll go in from the roof,” she shrugged.
“I’d rather examine the rooftop cameras and the balcony without…”
“Fine. No elevator, no balcony. That leaves astral projection or clicking my heels together. Preference?”
“Look, I’m not going to get cat burglar cooties on your crime scene.”
“You don’t know what to look for.”
“I don’t have to; I know what they were looking for. It’s not like I never scoped out Bruce Wayne. I’ll see you upstairs.”
Bugio. When Ubu first heard the word, it sounded like an obscenity. The more he learned of the DEMON installation there, the more convinced he became that his first impression was correct.
The Great One, Ra’s al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the West, Apex of the Age of Oneness through One Rule, had decreed that, in two days time, he would move from the castle in the Fargaras Mountains to the one on the Island of Bugio.
Since being called as Ubu, the man who was born Corcea Porumbescu had served the Demon’s Head at the compound in Mongolia, the castle in Nepal, the installation in Uruguay, the fortress in Bangkok, the fortress in Greenland, the fortress at Tuskar Rock, and (most trying of all) the royal suite of the Gotham Imperial Hotel.
Ubu was not familiar with any of these places before Ra’s announced his intention of going there, and his first task as bodyguard was, of course, to become familiar with all facets of the DEMON base and the surrounding country. He sought out information on Bugio from the usual source and... and... had spent every minute since wishing he was born Corcea Porumbescu of Los Angeles, California. Ubu was not even certain where Los Angeles, California was. He knew it was on the opposite coast from Gotham City. He knew they had smog, and he knew that is where decadent moving pictures came from, whereby the West spread their doctrine of corruption throughout the world. But he knew too that the women of California did not send their sons to be trained in the DEMON camps at Eger, and if he had been born to a woman of Los Angeles, he would not now be packing up to go to Bugio.
It was always an odd sensation walking through the Wayne offices as Batman. The lobby felt like any other lobby of any other large office building… except for all the black marble that suited his personal taste. The security office was a little better, since the public never went there and it was designed for functionality, not to make a corporate statement. No black marble... Only a bank of WayneTech monitors and copious paperwork with his name stamped all over it. Still, it was more comfortable than the lobby... The elevators to the 40th floor, and the bank of upper level elevators there which took those with business on the higher floors to the 41st through 77th… well, at least they were impersonal. He was there often enough as Bruce Wayne, but so were thousands of his employees. Reaching the executive suite on the 77th floor, that was another matter. The board room, the executive dining room and fitness center, Lucius’s office and his own, it was all a little too familiar, too much a part of Bruce Wayne’s life. He felt the muscle memory in his legs as he walked down the hall, maneuvering his hips in a way that felt strange with the utility belt. The cape was longer and heavier than the suitcoat he was used to—it was the only place in the world where his cape felt unnatural.
“Any progress?” he said into the OraCom, not because he really wanted to know, but simply to gravel in Batman’s voice and shake off this shadow of Wayne. He didn’t expect:
..:: You better have some catnip on you. Kitty gets a treat tonight. ::..
“You found something?”
Purring in answer to that.
“Catwoman, what did you find?” he asked firmly.
And bawdy laughter in answer to that.
..:: See the thing about Bruce Wayne is there aren’t many opportunities to get at him in a secluded area. They never would have done something as public as a parking garage if they thought they could do better. So they must have watched for—You going to close Lucius’s door or leave it unlatched?::..
“You can see me?”
..:: Yep. Every meowlicious muscle.::..
“Where? Not from the penthouse, obviously.”
..:: Not without Spitcurl’s x-ray vision, no. When I got up there, I started looking for the best place to spy on you, and I had an idea. Same place the spawn went. I’m across the street in the Knickerbocker Tower. ::..
Batman went to the window. “Infrared engage. Magnify,” he ordered. And a purple blur grew into focus… She was waving.
“That doesn’t mean they were there.”
..:: Maybe not, Handsome, but somebody was, fairly recently, and they smoked. Whole area around this window reeks of it. And it’s the best window to keep an eye on you as you come into work and move around the office, so I say they were here. ::..
..:: Yeah, they used a bump-key to get in. Normally wouldn’t mean anything; they’re easy enough to make. But when the spawn had LexCorp in here, they installed those bizarre “fLEX-lead locks” all over the place. You know, those stupid specialty jobs he puts on everything, as if Superman is going to give a damn about a locked door. Dipshit. But anyway, an ordinary bump key wouldn’t work. It’d have to be specially made, and it’s not the sort of thing you could pick up in any old pawn shop.::..
“No, it’s not. Kittlemeier?”
..:: For a regular customer, sure. For some jarhead that reeks of Marlboro, I don’t think so... Unless he had an introduction from someone we know—or he could be working with somebody that... ulgh, too many ‘ifs.’::..
“‘Ifs’ come with the job. It’s still a good find. We’re building a profile: Kittlemeier is a possibility, but unlikely. Where else might you get a modified bump-key for Luthor’s special locks?”
..:: In Gotham... Dead Eye Zane if he was free.::..
“He’s not. In Blackgate for another eighteen months.”
..:: Then the closest place is Mueller’s Hardware in Bludhaven, or find somebody in Gotham who I don’t know—which is unlikely. ::..
“Agreed. I’ll have Nightwing question Mueller. Finish up there and meet me in the cave.”
DEMON always preferred establishing bases in unpopulated areas. The work of the Demon’s Head required seclusion and secrecy. From the throne room down to the lowliest pit-stirrers, they spoke of the Dragon’s wisdom in extending his revered five-clawed talon to claim those parts of the world “unsullied” by civilization.
The thought that they were taking civilization’s leftovers did not occur to them.
At least, it never had until now. The first shock came when Ubu inquired about the skeleton staff at Bugio. A skeleton staff was left at all DEMON bases to gather intelligence, if the area warranted it, and to generally keep the place operational for the glorious day when the Demon’s Head sent the word, as he did today, that it was to be honored by his presence for an upcoming operation. But there was no staff at Bugio. None. Once the facility was built, the last man to leave uttered the oath of loyalty, switched off the lights and locked the door. Ubu couldn’t understand it. Was there no one there, literally no one, making ready for the Master’s coming?
No, there was not, and that led to the second shock: the reason why. A skeleton staff had to eat, and it seemed there was no food on Bugio, nor on any of the surrounding islands. No soil meant nothing grew from the land, and as for wildlife...
“Tarantulas, reptiles, and rodents,” the quartermaster read from his paperwork. “And a scarce population of feral goats ‘brought from Portugal by the mariners who first touched the rocky shores.’”
“Goats?” Ubu said dully.
“Not enough for milk and cheese,” Ur’ai answered grimly. “We bring that in with the water.”
“We have to bring our own water?”
It was now clear to Ubu if not to anyone else: Civilization had passed on Bugio for a reason.
The satellite cave under the Wayne Tower was smaller than the one under the manor, but its computer equipment and lab facilities were every bit the full cave’s equal. There was only one workstation, however. When Catwoman arrived, Batman turned in the single rotating chair, and he studied her.
“You did well tonight,” he remarked.
“Night’s not over yet,” she purred.
“When exactly did you ‘scope out’ Bruce Wayne?” he asked, with the old rooftop hauteur.
“Ah, something he didn’t know? That’s going to keep Psychobat up at night, isn’t it. I guess your instincts weren’t always as finely honed as they are now, eh, Stud?”
“Find anything on that sensor from the elevator shaft?”
“A partial print, the Batcomputer is running it against the military database now. When were you stalking Bruce Wayne?”
“I’m not telling,” she laughed. “Any word from Dick?”
“Nightwing will report back within the hour. When were you scoping out Wayne?”
“I’m sorry I mentioned it.”
“Bruce, that doesn’t work on me. It never has...” she trailed off, and sighed. Psychobat’s bellowing didn’t work on her—but neither did letting him ruin date night. “Look, it’s not like it ever became an actual plan. I just toyed with the idea for a couple days.”
“Do you remember Matilda?”
His eyes went blank as he mentally sifted through the faces of countless interchangeable bimbos, trying to place the name.
“That’s a no,” Selina observed. “If you knew who I meant, you wouldn’t have to think about it. Matilda is the resident cat at the Algonquin. Ninth one they’ve had since Dorothy Parker’s day, when John Barrymore brought in a bedraggled stray he’d named ‘Hamlet.’”
Beneath the cowl, a terrifying transformation occurred as a ghost of Fop Wayne clicked into the memory.
“Oh of course, the fashion show!” he exclaimed, like a dimwitted socialite who thought it was the most amusing thing in the world to dress up cats in “Meow Wear” and parade them up and down a runway. In a moment, the Bat-persona returned, but not before Selina had blanched.
“That was the most genuinely creepy thing I’ve ever seen you do,” she said flatly.
“A cat fashion show, fundraiser for the Wayne Animal Shelter,” he announced brusquely. “Bristol Feline Club supplied show-quality cats to be ‘models,’ the clothes were donated by some pet fashions company in Bludhaven. What was your problem with that?”
“I didn’t have a problem with it, it was going to be a room full of money, jewelry, and cats.”
“And you were going to kidnap Wayne in the course of it? For ransom or...?”
“No,” Selina rubbed her temples. “I figured you’d be a way in. I had a vague idea of getting an invitation and then bumping into you at the door and... what difference does it make? It was a small little nothing event that wouldn’t have covered my tips. The only reason I took an interest was because of the cat, but then the Hemingway House down in Florida put their Picasso cat on display. So I forgot about you and went to get some sun.”
“How long were you watching me?” he graveled.
“‘Bout a day and a half, give or take.”
“And you didn’t see anything... suspicious.”
“Bruce, you really think you’d only be hearing about it now if I had?”
And the Batcomputer pinged.
“We got him. An 81% probable match. Ross Witford. Regimental Landing Team, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Operation Desert Storm. Dishonorable discharge, 1994. One arrest for coke possession with intent to distribute, also 1994. Last known address... 413 Claggart Street, Bludhaven.”
Ross Witford thought he was anonymous and invisible in Gotham. He would have been to any standard law enforcement. But standard law enforcement can’t burrow into the banking records of a hardware store in the Bludhaven “Spine” while Oracle puts the kettle on for a fresh pot of tea. It can’t cross reference those records with an advertising database at Soldier of Fortune Magazine while Barbara rationalizes that, no matter what Alfred says and no matter how much Bruce must have spent on that special blend he brought her from London, teabags are just easier. And, while the maligned little bag of orange pekoe steeps, standard law enforcement cannot determine that the same credit card that bought a classified ad six weeks ago in Soldier of Fortune also registered a room eight days ago at a Day’s Inn on the Gotham waterfront.
There were a couple dives in the neighborhood where scum like Witford might go for a burger and a beer. Catwoman had picked the most likely of these, in her opinion, and established her lookout point on a rooftop between it and the motel. While she waited, she scrutinized a palm unit (with the predictable bat-emblem mounted on its face) and flipped back and forth between Witford’s outdated driver’s license photo and an identikit sketch Nightwing had put together from Mueller’s description. When she spotted her man, she swung down to divert him into her chosen alley—by way of her boot heels planted squarely in his chest, midswing. It resulted in a less-than-graceful landing in the alley for her, but a decidedly worse one for him.
Catwoman’s interrogation style was not like Batman’s, or any vigilante’s. She relied on her reputation as a villain, and the natural squeamishness anyone feels at the sight of a very pointy clawtip dangled near their eyeball. Yet Ross Witford held his tongue. He stood up to ten minutes that felt like ten hours, and then took the opportunity he knew would come, slugged her, and ran. He made it two full blocks before a scalloped shadow fell across his path. The next thing he knew, he was face down on the pavement, with his arm twisted behind his back in what had to be a fucking vice, and an equally strong hand behind his head, pushing his nose into a pothole.
It was the same strategy Bruce Wayne employed at auctions: hold back and let the small fry take each other out. When there is only one bidder left, come in with a higher offer. “New bidder, thank you, sir. The bid is to you,” and the auctioneer would turn back to the last high bidder. Often as not, it was so demoralizing, confronting a new opponent when they thought they had it won, they’d drop out without placing another bid.
That was the way to attack Witford: let him exhaust himself defying one interrogator, and as soon as he thought he was free, the second would swing in. The only question was who would go first. Selina said she didn’t want Batman “loosening the lid” for her, so he agreed to let her take the lead. It was the better strategy anyway. For a guy like Witford, being roughed up by a broad was worse than any beating Batman could deliver. It was bad enough in itself, but if another man knew about it—and the first thing Batman did was let Witford know he’d been watching—that was the final, unspeakable humiliation. He was beaten.
Ra’s al Ghul did not anticipate the Detective’s presence at Bugio.
That’s what Ubu had said, and that, at least, was something. Ur’ai still had to obtain provisions for a full staff and up to twenty prisoners, but he would not need to feed the additional four hundred men drawn from the Elite Žalčiai Corp. The four hundred that were always on hand when “He whose name must not be spoken” was expected to interest himself in a DEMON operation.
Unfortunately, the nearest supply port was in Funchal, and they had become ridiculously cautious about sales to organizations who might be “terrorists.” Their demands for credentials and official paperwork had stymied Un’ai for several hours, until G’fal gave him the idea of a cruise ship. P’tirn made up the necessary documents, and he became chief purchasing agent for The Žaltys: Queen of the Wyvern Sea.
That, at least, enabled him to buy as much meat, fruit, water, and sundries as The Demon’s Head might require for the Bugio base... which was a very good thing, for Ubu came by a moment later and said that, even though the Detective was not expected, the operation was of such size and scope, The Great One thought it best to bring the Žalčiai Corps anyway.
“Madagascar, I don’t get it,” Selina moped, taking off her gloves.
They had returned to the manor. At the start of the evening, with no patrol and only the Wayne investigation before them, Catwoman had ridden into town with Batman in the Batmobile. With no second car to worry about, it was much simpler to just return home. On the way, he told her what Witford revealed about his employer. He didn’t have a name, but the man who hired him operated out of a large plantation in Madagascar.
Selina had listened quietly, and then seemed to be thinking. She only spoke when they got back to the cave. She pulled off her mask and gloves, and followed him into the costume vault.
“I don’t get it. I absolutely do not get it. Madagascar isn’t high tech. They grow vanilla, don’t they? Why would some vanilla farmer half way around the world be hiring mercenaries to grab Bruce Wayne? It makes no sense at all.”
“I know,” Bruce graveled, taking off his cowl. “Wayne Tech, Wayne Enterprises, the Foundation... I can’t think of any angle, offhand. But that doesn’t mean... Well, just look at that case you mentioned earlier. The Matilda fundraiser at the Algonquin, you didn’t have a logical reason for coming after me.”
“Hello? Cats, remember? Your fundraiser was a fashion show with the most famous cat in the city—second most famous cat,” she added quickly.
“I meant it’s not a logical reason to go after Bruce Wayne.”
“I wasn’t going after ‘Bruce Wayne,’ you just happened to be running the thing. I was in it for the cat.”
Bruce’s eyes went square.
“It wasn’t about me... it was about the cat,” he said in a low, thoughtful voice. Then, as he tried to step past her and found he couldn’t, he grabbed her upper arms and kissed her cheek. “You... are very good at this,” he graveled, and then pushed her aside and marched out of the vault and into the main cavern.
She followed, once the shock wore off, and found him typing away at his workstation.
“Here it is, Eduardo Melo Pequena. I thought I remembered something in an old Interpol report. Family is Portuguese, obviously, and they’ve had a vanilla plantation on Madagascar since before the Bourbons. It’s just a blip, nothing was ever proven. But he is a collector who is a 64% probable for having stolen goods in his collection. And there is a notation in his Interpol file from... 12 years ago... speculating that he had kidnapped the son of a thief to force him to steal an item he couldn’t get any other way. There was also a rumor that he threatened the wife of a smuggler some twenty years before that. Now, two unconfirmed rumors over the course of thirty-five years is hardly conclusive, but—”
“But you remembered it. Because you’re Batman.”
“I didn’t remember, actually. I just had a vague... Look at that, he bid on some Kryptonite six years ago, that’s probably when I read his file.”
“Bruce, I love you, but if you think anything you just said makes you look less freakish...”
“Haven’t you ever heard of this guy? I mean, I’d think if he did have a reputation for snatching the families of thieves to get what he wants, word would get around.”
“Nope, never heard of him. Might be too smalltime for the people I talk to. What does he collect?”
Bruce glanced at the file again, and after he skimmed for a moment, he shook his head.
“It doesn’t say.”
“See, this is why I say cops are stupid, even the glamour international kind. ‘64% probable’ for having stolen goods in his collection, and they don’t know what he collects.”
“They don’t mention it, it’s a data blip, a... a footnote in a larger criminology analysis of... of something that wouldn’t interest you at all. The point, unproven but worth considering, is that maybe they weren’t after Bruce Wayne as Bruce Wayne. Maybe they’re after Catwoman’s boyfriend.”
It wasn’t the food that worried Ubu, it was the water. The food taster provided adequate protection against poison taken at meals, but it was impractical to have him sample the water with which the master might brush his teeth. It was more daunting still to test the water in which he bathed. If the water could not be tested, then its delivery would have to be supervised. Each step of the way, from the initial transport into the Bugio facility to the portion drawn for Ra’s al Ghul’s personal use, to its final delivery into his bedchamber... That was certainly possible in the normal course of DEMON operations, but if the Detective should make an appearance, Ubu would have greater concerns than guarding bathwater.
Alfred was quite aware that “date night” meant Master Bruce and Miss Selina often spent the night in town. He was therefore unconcerned when he found their bed had not been slept in. He made his own breakfast, and rather than ironing the newspaper to place on the breakfast tray, he read it himself. Deciding to take advantage of the light morning, he went for a walk around the grounds. Only when he returned did he venture down to the cave, to retrieve the kimono Master Bruce would not have needed to change into on returning from patrol.
He was shocked to hear Miss Selina’s voice as he descended the stairs:
“I FOUND IT! I GOT IT THIS TIME! BRING ON THE CATNIP!”
And Master Bruce’s, coming from the direction of the chem lab:
“One minute... I’ll be there just as soon as—”
“As the watched pot boils, I know. Pfft.”
“Miss Selina, have you and the master been working here all night?” Alfred asked (in much the same tone he used with Master Dick when that young man’s date with the charming but regrettably irresponsible Clarice Kenton had extended a full seven hours past his curfew).
Selina turned, and Alfred could not help but note the unkempt hair and fatigued eyes that Master Bruce displayed so frequently when found in the cave at this time of day. Like him, she seemed unaware of her exhaustion.
“Hey, Alfred. Congratulate me. Rascally little Portuguese art collector tried to pull a fast one on Kitty, but he’s no match for me, the Internet, and Walapang.” She pointed playfully to the bat hanging low over the workstation, and Alfred could have sworn the bat squeaked in return. “We got him, didn’t we, Buddy,” she cooed. “Took six hours and a lotta coffee, but we got him.”
When Selina entered this household, he hoped her influence would bring Master Bruce’s sleeping habits into closer alignment with those of ordinary unmasked humanity—not the other way around. A part of him wanted to tell her so, but one didn’t scold the mistress of the manor. Instead, he offered to bring her some fruit juice. He knew better than to even ask Master Bruce, he would just bring a full carafe with two glasses, and hope for the best.
When he returned, at least the master and mistress were together, huddled around her computer screen.
“See, I told you if you’d leave me alone for half an hour, I’d find his kink,” she said smugly. “Oddball collectors like that, it’s never as simple as ‘lithographs’ or ‘antebellum pottery.’ It’s always something chewy, like this.”
“A half hour is thirty minutes, you took four hours,” he grumbled. “But this does seem... plausible.”
He poured a glass of juice and drank it down absently. Selina sipped hers.
“Alfred, this guy is a collector,” she explained proudly. “He’s fascinated by disputed inventions, things where more than one person or country claims credit for coming up with it. The telephone, steam engine, porcelain, barometer. It’s pretty interesting, actually. Most of the also-rans are curiosities, so they’re not that valuable to anybody. He’s probably amassed quite a collection without anybody really noticing. He only surfaces now and then, when he tries to get something that is recognized as the real deal, so it’s much more expensive. Like this wire recorder from Thomas Edison’s workshop, that’s the last time he surfaced, bidding on it at Sotheby’s.”
“The last time he surfaced legitimately,” Bruce interjected.
“Right,” Selina resumed. “This guy has a dark side. When he finds something he can’t get any other way, we think he targets a thief who can steal it for him. And rather than paying them like anyone else, he kidnaps someone they care about to make them play ball. And this idiot went after Bruce, can you believe it?”
“It’s conjecture,” Bruce said mildly. “But it does conform to all the facts that we have. Now that we know the nature of his collection, his ‘kink’ as Selina puts it, we may be able to identify what he’s after, and then—”
“Oh I found it,” Selina said brightly.
“I was going to tell you, I didn’t get a chance,” she explained.
“What is it?” he asked, biting off each word.
“It’s irresistible. Most things on this list of ‘disputed firsts’ don’t go back more than three hundred years, but this... Meow. India, China, and some little corner of Persia all claim to have invented chess. Now, I found a set of chessmen from... someplace I cannot pronounce” she said, pointing to the screen. “It has Indian style pieces, but the board is laid out like the Chinese version of the game. So for a dispute nut, this a must-have. And it’s on loan to a tiny little private museum in Istanbul for a limited run exhibit they’re got. And that’s the catch. It’s only there for three weeks. Then it disappears back into the collection of whoever loaned it to them. Now, no thief is that good. This is not a major museum. To go in cold, slip into Turkey without attracting attention, case the place without attracting attention, research it, get a floor plan, get the blueprints, devise a way in, devise a way around their pressure panels, devise a way out, and then get all the equipment together in Istanbul where you’ve got minimal if any local connections... it can’t be done in twenty days. Can’t be done. The only way to get those chessmen is to use somebody that already knows the facility.”
“Someone who’s robbed the museum already,” Bruce said.
“Right. It’s only been done three times,” she said happily. “The Serbian Fox, who’s in Iron Heights for fifteen to twenty. The Japanese cat burglar known only as Tomio, nobody knows where he retired to.”
“São Paulo, Brazil.”
“Fine, nobody but you knows where he retired to. And the third thief to successfully burgle this particular little boutique museum in suburban Istanbul is, of course, me.”
“They had Babylonian lions,” she smirked.
“Do you know how rare artifacts from ancient Babylon are?”
“I’m going to bed,” Selina sighed.
When she had gone, Alfred turned to Bruce as if to say “Oh well done, sir.”
Ubu moistened his fingertips with the healing Hovirag oil used by his people, and touched his temples gingerly.
There was no Lazarus Pit in Bugio.
The nearest convergence of ley lines where a pit could be constructed was more than six hours away. How was he supposed to safeguard The Demon Head’s continued existence when the nearest Lazarus Pit was more than six hours away?
To be continued…