Alfred had never considered himself a pessimist, but today he had to wonder. It seemed like he was having a good day. Any objective third party would think so. Yet he felt nothing. So far from enjoying it, he found himself not trusting it. It really made him wonder if the years spent with Master Bruce’s solitary brooding hadn’t rubbed off.
The day began with a cherished ritual that Alfred thought he had performed for the last time: pressing the morning newspaper. Master Bruce said he appreciated all the trouble Alfred had gone to preparing a digital edition for him on a tablet, and he was sure he would find it useful later in the day. But with his breakfast, he preferred print copies of the Gotham Times and Daily Planet, just as he had always done. He didn’t consider them to contain “old news” but worthy news. The trouble with internet news, Bruce maintained, was that it had no unit cost. Newsprint cost money. Running the presses cost money. The delivery system involving men and trucks and networks of contracted newsstands which calculated the number of copies they would accept with an eye to their own bottom line, it all had dollar and cents costs that made everyone involved stop and think at every step of the way. It forced editors to make choices about what stories were fit to print and how many column inches they should receive. Those judgment calls added value which news that was simply “newer” could never match, simply because it had not proven itself passing through that gauntlet.
So Alfred began the day as he always had: pressing the morning newspaper. He had placed it on the breakfast tray and proceeded to the next pleasant surprise: the lack of any discernible aftermath to that appalling Op Ed in the Gotham Observer. Alfred had spoken to Miss Selina only once since she took the odious task off his hands showing it to Master Bruce, and she had not mentioned his reaction. Alfred wasn’t sure what kind of response to expect after a day of such disgraceful outrages in the press, but he was prepared for some reaction—be it anger, bitterness or disappointment—that would be distressing for him to witness. He loved Master Bruce dearly, and his affection for Miss Selina grew by the day. Seeing either of them upset was distressing, seeing both was downright painful. So Alfred had entered the bedroom bracing for the worst… and he left pleasantly puzzled. Master Bruce seemed his usual self; Miss Selina her ‘alternate’ usual self on those mornings she was not disposed to wake yet. She would reach up for the largest pillow available—a brocaded European square, most often—and pull it down over her head, sometimes poking Master Bruce’s hip with her other hand as if he was personally responsible for the existence of the sun, and often grumbling oaths which Alfred thought it best not to acknowledge. In short, both seemed completely unaffected by the previous days’ barrage of unwelcome news.
That alone would have been cause to rejoice, but the best was yet to come. Rather than wait for him to make his casual pass through the morning room so she could communicate any changes she wished to make in the day’s menu, Miss Selina sought him out. She found him dusting in the sun room, and it turned out she had no changes for the day but wanted to consult him about a planned entertainment the following week. She and Master Bruce wished to host a dinner for forty, at the penthouse immediately before the Air Ball.
“Are you up for the challenge?” she’d asked with that impish grin of hers (which was Alfred’s first real introduction to what Batman had been up against for all those years).
“Thirty-six would be more traditional,” Alfred said. Then, realizing this could be seen as trying to reduce the workload, he hastily added, “Or even forty-eight.”
“I know, multiples of twelve,” Selina nodded. “But this isn’t about place settings; that’s for people a rung or two down. We’re shooting for something else. ‘A dinner for thirty-six’ doesn’t trip off the tongue; it doesn’t make a pretty headline.”
“And it doesn’t allude, with Machiavellian subtlety, to the Four Hundred of the Gilded Age, miss,” Alfred said with a sudden glint of understanding.
“You got it,” Selina winked. “These people live for exclusivity, ever smaller circles and ever shorter lists. Everyone attending the Air Ball is a Foundation donor, and within that group there are the ones in the Social Register, the ones who are members of the Butterfield, the ones who call him ‘Bruce’ but only behind his back, the ones who can call him Bruce to his face… and the most exclusive subset of all, the ones who will be more ‘Bruce Wayne guests’ than anyone else in the city that night, will be the nineteen couples invited to dinner before the ball.”
Alfred’s first reaction was, naturally, that of the butler entrusted with organizing this imposing affair. He said he would consult his files and draw up a number of menu options, catering and service recommendations, as well as a budget, and have these ready for Miss Selina’s review within the hour. It was only when he went to the morning room with his two best proposals in hand that the greater significance of the event sunk in. He had slowed as he approached the door out of habit, but was still surprised when he heard voices inside. He expected Miss Selina to be alone, but Master Bruce was in there with her—and they were discussing the guest list with an intensity of purpose that Alfred had only heard from the late Dr. and Mrs. Wayne on a handful of occasions:
“What about the Gardners?” “Park Avenue Gardners or River Place Gardners?” “River Place, Lawrence and Justine.” “Stick a pin in it for now. I want to keep two slots at least for gay couples...”
Alfred had never considered himself a pessimist, but now he had to wonder. The relaxed domesticity he’d noticed the day Bruce and Selina returned from the movies was nothing compared to this. Bruce being happy in his private life was the more important development, naturally, but it was one Alfred had always believed was possible. Bruce assuming a leading role in Gotham Society, not as camouflage for Batman but as Dr. Thomas and Martha Van Geissen Wayne’s son, that was something he had given up hoping for.
But there it was. Hard as it was for Alfred to believe, crossings were made throughout the morning between Bruce’s study and the morning room. Alfred hadn’t seen anything like it since Dr. and Mrs. Wayne decided the guest list for Bruce’s christening. Selina would have some idea and go across the hall to tell him, and a short while later, something occurred to Bruce and he crossed back to talk to Selina.
And each new occurrence made Alfred irritable rather than jubilant. Each repetition made it seem more and more certain that the miracle had actually occurred, that Bruce and Selina really were functioning as Mr. and Mrs. Wayne, the arbiters of Gotham Society, and Alfred… felt nothing. Had he really become such a cynic? Was hope so dead inside him that he couldn’t work up a little enthusiasm for the answer to his prayers playing out before his eyes?
“Bruce, how does the name Ashton-Larraby keep magically reappearing on this list in your handwriting?”
“I put it under ‘Maybe.’”
They were in the study now. Bruce seated at the desk with Selina standing in front of it, her back to the door and blocking Bruce’s view so that Alfred could glance in without fear of being seen.
“They’re not a ‘Maybe,’ they’re a ‘No,’” she was saying. “If they don’t live on Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Gracie Square or Sutton Place, I don’t want to hear it. We already made one exception for the Bantrees, and I’m still having second thoughts about it.”
“Because her jewelry’s too good,” Bruce said wearily.
“Yes. They’re old money and the gilt’s wearing thin since the 80s. Assumption has to be that the real stones are long gone and replaced by fakes.”
“You know that’s not true as well as I do. Liv would mortgage her children before she sold her mother’s ruby.”
“Doesn’t matter what I know, it only matters how it looks to someone like me who doesn’t know.”
Alfred affixed the back of Selina’s head with a suspicious glare—a glare so similar to the one Batman used to direct at her, it drew Bruce’s attention when his peripheral vision caught it in the mirror.
“Something to add, Alfred?” he asked, leaning back in his chair to see around Selina’s shoulder. She turned to look at him too, and Alfred gave a little cough as though it was his intention to be noticed the entire time.
“My only thought, sir, is that, unless Miss Selina and yourself have undergone a most alarming transformation into the most objectionable type of snobs, one is forced to conclude that there is some other criteria being employed to weigh the merits of potential guests. If there is an ulterior motive behind this dinner party, one would prefer to be enlightened now rather than later.”
Bruce and Selina looked at each other.
“You didn’t tell him?” they said in unison.
“But I thought you—” they said next.
Alfred stood patiently through several rounds of: “This is really more your thing than mine—” and “Me? I just naturally figured you’d be handling it—” before deciding they would never stop on their own.
“Perhaps,” Alfred said loud enough to command their attention, “if only one of you were to speak at a time. Miss Selina, would you say this party is more of a social entertainment or a crimefighting operation?”
“Crimefighting,” Selina said, a hint of the chastened schoolgirl in her tone.
“Very well then. In that case, it might be best if Master Bruce were to continue with the explanation.”
“Fine,” Bruce said, a hint of the chastened but defiant schoolboy in his. “The cat burglar is hitting the homes of Foundation donors while they’re attending the fundraisers. He or she is going after ‘Wayne guests.’ We’re giving them a new tier of Wayne guest, one that’s more personal and much more exclusive. If the goal is to make me look bad, to strike at Selina and I personally, then they’ve got to zero in on this group and not those attending the Air Ball alone.”
“That’s why the subliminal hint of the 400 is so important,” Selina said, picking up the narrative the moment Bruce paused. “The more we put on airs, the bigger a target we are...”
“And Selina already profiled all the Foundation donors, pinpointing who has the best jewelry from a cat burglar’s point of view…”
“So we pack the dinner party with guests that don’t…”
“Leaving him with only one clear target…”
“In a seemingly random assortment of PLUs...”
“Or at least, no more than two or three targets,” Bruce said.
“Why do you not believe me when I tell you I can get it down to one?” Selina asked with a gimlet look in her eye.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s building contingencies into the plan,” Bruce said. “‘If the burglar chooses another target, what would it be’ is like… ‘What will I do if the night I actually break into the Egyptian wing, the security guard changes his route?’”
“I really need to teach you how to rob a museum properly so you’ll stop saying things like that.”
Alfred coughed again, redirecting the conversation.
“Very well then,” he said. “If one understands correctly, the criteria for selecting these guests is that they all appear plausible choices to the outside world, yet all but one will not present desirable targets to a jewel thief?”
“That and where they live. Proximity to the penthouse is a thing,” Selina said. “I need to be able to get to the target apartment quickly and catch our boy red-handed.”
Alfred pursed his lips and presented the same disapproving glare that Bruce always saw when a Fop appearance was announced. It was novel, for once, to not be the recipient.
“And how do you propose to reconcile this burglar-catching disappearance with your obligations as hostess?” Alfred asked archly.
“Oh that’s easy,” Selina answered—in that carefree tone Bruce also knew, the one she used to tell you she didn’t give a damn about your disapproval. It was novel, for once, to not be on the receiving end of that one, too. “Batman is going to show up to question me about the cat burglar,” Selina continued. “Right as we’re sitting down to dinner. The lout. We’ll go out on the balcony to talk, and he’ll block the guests’ view while I’m gone. I go over the side, have my costume stored in Bruce’s office, and leave from there.”
The novelty of the experience ended as Alfred’s eyes flicked up with frightening minimalism to include Bruce in his glare of disapproval.
“And how is that feat to be accomplished?” he asked tersely.
“You’ll see that Dick and Barbara aren’t invited,” Bruce said simply.
“I see,” Alfred said, resignedly. “Perhaps caviar should then be substituted for the first course, to compensate the guests for being used as dupes in a Batman and Catwoman operation.”
He knew it was too good to be true…
“Also the addition of a Sauternes and petit fours at the end of the meal, to console them for the loss of the hostess.”
…and squelched his disappointment with the knowledge that at least he wasn’t a pessimist.
The morning of the Air Ball, Selina awoke purring. Ned and Charlotte Mandell were the couple she had chosen to be the cat burglar’s final target, and she had been planning the robbery of their exquisite Fifth Avenue mansion as if it was her own. There were some gorgeous Harry Winston earrings— marquis and pear-shaped clusters each suspending a large pear-shaped diamond: 12 carats on the right, 14 on the left—which Lottie would certainly be wearing to the ball. That was a pity, but it was the price that had to be paid. No lady of Lottie Mandell’s breeding would dream of wearing a necklace with drop earrings like that, which meant the Van Cleef and Arpels diamond and pearl number would still be in her safe. So would the diamond and ruby Chopard she had worn to the Fire Ball, and probably that big opal cocktail ring—not because it would be gauche to wear with the earrings, but because it really was terribly ugly. The opal alone would bring enough to feed the tigers for three months, Selina decided (although she didn’t like to think too much about the proceeds of a heist before she had the goods in her hand.)
But the rest of the job she envisioned in detail—lingered on the details—right down to the potential Bat-encounter… the flight options if he made his long, point-eared shadow appearance in the first floor gallery, the parlor floor drawing room or dining room, the third floor bedroom, or on the roof… and a happy epilogue trying on the that beautiful Chopard ruby before parting with it. She even dreamed about the theft—which led to the wake-up purr, but also meant revising one part of her plan: if the Bat-encounter started in the bedroom but Batman was blocking her path to the hall... She worked that out on her way to the shower, pausing to wave at Mirror Bitch as she passed. It was only as the shampoo flowed from her hair that she let the mindset of the cat burglar wash away with it—to be replaced by the crimefighter planning to trap him.
And that would begin with a visit to Bruce’s office. She had no plan to work at the Foundation today, but she did make her regular lunchtime visit to the 77th Floor. Lucius was leaving Bruce’s office just as she approached the door, and he acknowledged her with a stream of polite but emphatic muttering:
“’Don’t worry about it,’ he says. Gregorian Falstaff and a bunch of his people moved into the building and what does Mr. Wayne have to say on the matter? ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Less than a week after that PR coup d’etat they pulled and they’re installed down there—a bunch of people we didn’t hire—not ten feet from the conference room that’s hot-linked to Sub Diego, meta-links to the whole corporate intranet—land doubles for Sub Diego staff running around with free access to the 16th floor—and what does Bruce have to say?”
“Don’t worry about it, Lucius.” This, said on cue and with a wide ‘playing along’ grin as Bruce put an arm around Lucius’s shoulder and walked him the rest of the way out the door. “It’ll be fine. Falstaff has made the worst blunder imaginable: He thinks he’s won. Now I can dismantle him.”
“And how exactly are you planning to do that?” Lucius asked archly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce said, and shut the door in his face.
“You better be careful there,” Selina advised. “I taught him a lot of my best tricks, and he was no slouch to begin with. If he decides you’re holding out on him and wants to snoop…”
“I am not worried about Lucius Fox hacking my Blackberry,” Bruce assured her.
“I don’t think you ‘worry’ about anything,” Selina said with a headshake.
“I’m worried about this,” he said, returning to the desk.
Grumbling that she was working her way into every corner and cubbyhole of Batman’s operation and he’d soon have nothing left to call his own but the contents of his utility belt, he opened a desk drawer. There was a recessed pad with no markings, similar to the camouflaged fingerprint-scanner in the private elevator which acted as the button for the Batcave. Bruce pressed it with the pad of his index finger, and a latch clicked within the window. He opened a panel of the wall beside it to reveal a perfectly situated recess on the outside wall of the building—perfectly situated, that is, for one who happened to be swinging by seventy-seven floors above street level and wanted a spot to get out of the wind.
Bruce stepped into it, and it was only with that visual reference that Selina could judge the space: about thirty inches wide, ninety deep, like three phone booths lined up side by side.
“Sightlines are non-existent,” he said proudly. “From the Moxton building, the Knickerbocker, the Trump, if you don’t know it’s here, it looks like girder, shadow and window frame.”
“No kidding,” Selina said, following him out. “I never noticed it, and in all modesty, if I don’t see a perfect entry point like this…”
“Well, it’s not ‘an entry point’ for anyone but me,” Bruce said quickly. “But you can use it tonight to change. You’ll be coming down from the terrace, changing and being on your way. So there’s no need for you to come into the office and no need to add your fingerprint to the access list.”
“But now that I know it’s here, you can’t use it to hide my Christmas present,” Selina teased.
He grunted and showed her where to stow her costume. She secured it. And then she took his hand playfully and lifted it to her mouth, kissing his fingertip slowly as if she was scanning his fingerprint with her lower lip.
“You haven’t asked if I’m ‘clear on the plan,’” she said seductively.
He said nothing… which she didn’t think to find suspicious.
The rest of her preparations were in the penthouse. Alfred had already arrived and said the caterers would be there soon. He would handle everything relating to the dinner party, and Selina should “not trouble herself,” which she correctly interpreted as “staying out of the way.” So she returned to the car, took out her dress in its quilted garment bag, her makeup case and—then it hit her: The only time she had dressed at the penthouse for a formal party was the night of the MoMA reopening. She and Bruce had agreed there was too much Batman/Catwoman baggage connected to the museum’s closing for them to attend the reopening together, let alone dressing for it in the same room. So she’d packed up her jewelry, her makeup, her dress and her cats, and settled into the penthouse as if it was her old apartment. She lived there for a day, dressed alone, and went alone to the party.
At the MoMA.
Now here she was again: bringing her dress, her makeup and her jewelry, preparing to dress for a formal party in that penthouse bedroom. This time she would not be alone. This time he would be right there behind her, saying “Here, let me get that” in the same voice that once told her to stay away from that Van Gogh. He would take her wrist, not with the implied threat of batcuffs but to fasten a bracelet.
When she had a cat burglar to catch.
She closed her eyes and said a prayer to the stars that watched over cats: Don’t let him be a jackass. Just for tonight, don’t let him be a jackass.
Hours passed. When the time came, Selina started getting dressed. Bruce came home, through the flurry of activity in the foyer, the living room and dining room. Alfred stressed that he had everything in hand and Bruce should not trouble himself. Unlike Selina, Bruce took this to mean asking a lot of questions Alfred didn’t have time for. Alfred answered two before telling Bruce his tuxedo was pressed and hanging in the bedroom. That Bruce correctly interpreted as “Unless Joker is on the premises, remove the Fop from my sight or you will never eat again.”
Bruce went into the bedroom to get ready, where Selina had got as far as “the preliminaries,” which is to say she had put on the dress. Bruce took one look at her, and simultaneously confirmed and dispelled her fears about Bat/Cat echoes.
The dress she had chosen for the night was an ice blue Elie Saab with a flouncy skirt. It wasn’t her usual style, and she didn’t think the color suited her, but this wasn’t about looking nice sitting at the head of the dinner table, or on the red carpet arriving at the ball, or swirling around the dance floor. The dress wasn’t going to make it to any of those places, because Batman was going to barge in and wreck the party. She was going to excuse herself like a dignified hostess and go outside to deal with him, and that flouncy skirt would blow around in the high wind on the terrace. If she left Dick a length of the fabric to hold onto after she’d gone, anyone watching from inside would catch the occasional bit of light blue fluttering behind the black cape, adding to the illusion that she was still there.
Later. On the terrace later the skirt would blow around. All it did in the still air of the bedroom was show a lot of leg. Bruce’s eyes had riveted on the V at the top of her thigh where the wispy fabric parted around it… It was an echo of Batman alright, but it didn’t evoke anything from the MoMA. It was precisely the same taking in of a scene she had seen a thousand times, scanning the big picture in a second with that quick mind of his and then honing in on the most pertinent detail. The night it looked like this was the night she had debuted the skirted costume. Then, as now, he’d taken in the scene: the rooftop (or in this case, the bedroom) and her in an instantaneous glance, and then he locked onto her leg as if drawn by a magnet. Throughout the encounter (or in this case, throughout the process of putting on his tuxedo, finding his cufflinks and tying his tie) his gaze returned. She could almost feel it moving around the curve of her calf, so much so that it almost tickled… She stifled a giggle as she felt it linger on the back of her knee, but the great detective wasn’t observant enough to notice her reaction.
“You like my dress?” she probed.
“Unusual color for you,” he said noncommittally—which confirmed that he was more Batman at the moment than Bruce. The Batman of that night who would never admit to noticing.
She explained about the terrace and choosing the color for its high visibility. Bruce nodded, said it was a good idea, and then added:
“Of course for maximum visibility, white would be even bette… never mind,” he broke off, remembering too late and glancing in the mirror to see Selina’s reaction. The angry glare she gave her lipstick said it all.
When they were last in Paris, walking along Rue François and looking in the windows at Balmain, he had pointed out a dress that he thought would suit her. She shook her head and said an evening gown like that was meant for Pierre Balmain’s ideal: a pale, petite blonde getting out of a limo at a European casino. A woman of Selina’s coloring, she declared, should only wear head-to-toe white if she was getting married. At that precise moment they were passing a street sign reading Rue François, and François being the name of Selina’s old boyfriend, Bruce made a joke. It wasn’t a particularly funny joke, but Selina had laughed. And then she confided that François was not at all marriage-averse as Bruce’s joke had implied. If she had wanted—and as he had twice reminded her since—she would be the Comtesse de Poulignac now.
Bruce’s focus shifted from Selina back to his own reflection. He found himself glaring at his chin. The lower half of his face, the parts exposed by the mask. Batman’s mouth which had uttered that idiotic non-proposal he would never stop paying for. He angrily ripped off his tie and unbuttoned the top button. “I’m going to shave,” he snarled, stalking off to the bathroom.
Despite being raised in Wayne Manor, Dick had not been subjected to the full curriculum of upper class life the way Bruce was, and certain nuances still escaped him. He knew, for example, that the time engraved on the invitation to a charity ball was not to be taken literally, but he hadn’t realized that a dinner party before the ball was another matter, that a dinner given by the host and hostess was practically a sacred trust, and that no guest so honored would dream of coming late. So he misjudged the time when Batman should arrive at the Wayne penthouse to accost Selina Kyle. Rather than finding everyone sitting down to dinner, he found the first course finished and the second well underway.
It took nothing away from his entrance. If anything the dramatic impact was heightened as one diner after another fell silent, and that silence was broken by the odd clink of a fork set down without precision because Theta Stanton-Brown wasn’t looking at what she was doing. Because she was staring—as everyone was now—at the imposing caped figure who had entered the room uninvited.
“Catwoman,” he said in his passable facsimile of the Bat-gravel. “Excuse me, Miss Kyle, I’m sorry to interrupt your evening, but I have some questions about this new cat burglar and what’s been happening around the Foundation galas. If you could spare a few moments.”
Everyone’s heart thumped.
Selina had as much theatre in her soul as the next Rogue, and she let the silence hold, her eyes locked onto the masked man’s, the tension building…
Just long enough. Then she broke eye contact and started to rise from her chair… A gracious smile for Frank Endicott on her right, they would finish their conversation later—she simply had to hear the rest of his story about Dubai—then a word to the table at large, apologizing for the interruption and begging everyone to please go on with—
“No,” a hard, masculine voice sounded the moment Selina started to rise. She froze, some syllable frozen on her lips as the thought behind it vaporized with shock.
Bruce was already standing.
“This is my house,” he said, turning away from the table to face Batman. “These are my guests, Selina is my companion, and it is my Foundation you’re speaking of. Any questions you have, I will answer. And anything you have to say, you’ll say to me.”
“Bruce, I really think,” Selina began—only to be silenced by that flash of Tiger-Bruce she’d seen with Falstaff.
“Don’t be silly, darling,” he said, crossing to her end of the table in a few quick strides and slipping his arm around her waist. “This isn’t the kind of thing you should worry about,” he said, as if it was some intricacy of non-profit tax law and not Batman, Gotham’s Dark Knight, expecting to question Catwoman about a cat burglar.
Trapped, Selina’s eyes delivered threats that wouldn’t be uttered aloud even if they were alone.
Bruce answered with a steely glint of long ago rooftops. Checkmate, it said, with the calm finality of one who doesn’t need to bellow or threaten because he’s already won.
“Take care of our guests and go on to the ball,” he said. “I’ll catch up with you as soon as it’s finished.”
At the same time Bruce was leading an astonished Batman out to the terrace of the Wayne penthouse, a darkly clad figure clicked a stopwatch and proceeded at a brisk place down 78th Street into the blind spot of the Fifth Avenue traffic camera. As Bruce was climbing over the side shielded from view by Batman’s cape, the figure was firing a grappling hook to a flagpole. As Bruce entered the hidden niche outside his office to retrieve his costume, a dark silhouette was emerging from the shadow between pilasters to climb the building four doors down from his target.
He paused as a siren sounded… not the full siren of a passing car, only a quick warning wail. Then silence… He resumed.
It was not necessary to reach the roof of this towering monstrosity, only the 24th Floor, from which he could reach the roof of its 23-story neighbor, from which he could repel down to the modest six-story residence of Ned and Charlotte Mandell. Its Phoenix might take time, but like most old buildings of its kind, there was ample footing on its wide ledges… As it happened, this particular Phoenix still used the default configuration shipped from the factory, so it required nothing more than a pre-programmed keycard inserted into the base and he was inside.
That left only a pair of rotating cameras to defeat before he could get to the safe, cameras that each had an iris which functioned like a human eye: widening in the dark to take in more light, contracting in brightness to protect itself. A few pulses from the outrageously expensive but undeniably useful little box obtained from a Genoa “watchmaker” would care of that: driving the camera to its brightest setting and stalling it there, with an iris too small to register anything in a darkened room. The only trick was coming at the first camera to deliver the pulse without being detected by the second, which is why he’d come in a window on the top floor. The semi-circular staircase was just as pictured in Architectural Digest, and it was with some satisfaction that he attached his gear to the wrought iron railing. It wasn’t often you found original features like this intact, and it was faster than driving his own support spikes into the plaster.
He descended to a point midway between the fourth and fifth floors, which seemed the optimal distance from the target cameras. Aimed and pulsed. Aimed and pulsed. Then dropped to the landing with a satisfied grunt. The library was to his right and the master bedroom to his left. Both had a safe, but the one with the jewelry was in the bedroom, behind the painting of that poor girl in Victorian dress.
He entered the bedroom suite, noted the empty Harry Winston box on the vanity—that would be the earrings Mrs. Mandell was wearing tonight—and a mahogany “tea chest” style jewelry box which would contain her everyday pieces. It had the kind of pedestrian lock that wouldn’t stop a housemaid, which the lady evidently knew since she left the key in the lock with a pair of decorative brocaded tassels hanging from it.
He shrugged and proceeded to the painting.
That poor girl. Nice enough dress, nice enough hair, but the artist had not mastered portraying a human face. After seeing this picture so many times through a scope, the thief could not resist taking an extra moment, now that he was so close, to try and figure out what was wrong with it. Was it her eyes? Her nose? Her mouth? Perhaps all three. It was certainly a very bad painting. And, he was sorry to see, quite dusty. The frame was clean where it had been handled to get to the safe, but the background behind that poor ugly girl’s head was simply puddled with dust.
He shrugged, deciding these were very odd people. They probably ordered their maid not to dust it, he guessed. People have very silly ideas about their safes being secret, as if there could be any other reason to have such a wretched painting as this hanging in one’s bedroom.
The safe was a Clarkston-O’Keefe, which meant the Mandells had better judgment about security than they did Victorian portraiture. It took twelve minutes to get all six digits of the combination and another three to put them in the right order. But that was the kind of challenge that made a job rewarding, after all.
And then, with an inhale of the deepest satisfaction, he depressed the handle and opened the door. A Chopard box, a VCA and a non-descript leather one. He had opened the first two and dumped the contents into his satchel when the long imposing shadow snuffed out what little light there was in the room.
“Francois de Poulignac,” a deep voice graveled in the darkness. Then the shadow receded to form the pointy-eared, scallop-caped silhouette known throughout the world. Through the darkness, one could just make out movement of the right hand fingertips moving gently over the left knuckles, slowly and thoughtfully, the way a winemaker caresses a glass containing a great vintage. “I’m Batman,” he said.
To be continued…